Courts backlog could cause a queue of 72,000 cases in three years unless £2billion extra funding gets green-light, watchdog fears
A highly-damaging backlog in the Crown courts will rise to 72,000 cases within three years unless the Chancellor agrees to more than £2billion in extra funding, it has emerged.
The crisis is likely to carry on ‘for many years’, with a huge impact on victims of crime, government spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) said.
It revealed official forecasts drawn up by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show Crown courts will have a backlog of 72,000 cases by November 2024 – up from 60,000 currently – if funding remains at the same level as this year.
A highly-damaging backlog in the Crown courts will rise to 72,000 cases within three years unless the Chancellor agrees to more than £2billion in extra funding
Even in a best-case scenario, assuming billions of extra spending is approved by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the waiting list will stand at 48,000 cases at the end of 2024 in England and Wales, it warned.
By comparison, the number of outstanding cases was 41,000 just before the pandemic in March last year when the system was ‘already strained’ due to cuts, the NAO said.
The MoJ has calculated it needs £500million to expand the Nightingale courts system plus £1.7billion for extra legal aid and other costs.
However, the extra funding has yet to be agreed upon in the Government’s Spending Review. The NAO report, published today, sets out the devastating impact of the delays.
The number of outstanding cases was 41,000 just before the pandemic in March last year when the system was ‘already strained’ due to cuts, the NAO said
By June this year, there had been a 300 per cent rise in cases waiting more than a year to be heard – more than 11,300 cases compared with fewer than 3,000 at the end of March last year.
The number of sex crime victims waiting more than a year surged 435 per cent over the same period to 1,316, it said. Delays risk victims and witnesses becoming disillusioned with the justice system and dropping out, meaning offenders go unpunished. It also means witnesses’ memories can be less clear, potentially affecting the conviction rate.
Rape victims’ 170-day wait for justice
Rape survivors have to wait 170 days for their attacker to be charged – four times longer than victims of other crimes.
Figures from April 1 to June 30 looked at how long it took the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to charge a rape suspect after the first submission from police.
It marks a clear rise from earlier in the year when victims faced a 155-day wait, and is up from 125 days this time last year.
Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill QC said there was an ‘unacceptable’ gap between reported incidents of rape and cases reaching court.
He added: ‘We are increasing resources for our specialist units so they are equipped to deal with more cases.’
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: ‘Despite efforts to increase capacity in criminal courts, it looks likely that the backlog will remain a problem for many years.
‘The impact on victims, witnesses and defendants is severe and it is vital that the MoJ works effectively with its partners in the criminal justice system to minimise the delays to justice.’
Meg Hillier, chairman of the Commons’ public accounts committee which oversees the NAO’s work, said: ‘Covid-19 has had a significant impact on an already struggling criminal courts system.
‘Despite previous concerns raised, it’s disappointing those responsible for the criminal justice system are still not working effectively together to address the severe delays. The Ministry of Justice needs to show greater leadership in order to reduce the backlog and deliver timely, effective justice for victims of crime.’
The NAO concluded there are still gaps in the recovery programme run by the MoJ and HM Courts and Tribunal Service, which spent an extra £63million on its response to Covid in 2020-21.
An MoJ spokesman said: ‘This report recognises the speed at which we responded to Covid-19. This meant that – in a matter of months – our buildings were made safe, remote technology was rolled out across all courts, and Nightingale courtrooms opened up and down the country to increase the space available for trials.’