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Court backlog to remain an issue for years, NAO reveals

By the end of June 2021, the backlog of cases waiting to be heard or completed was nearly 61,000 cases in the Crown Court and more than 364,000 cases in the magistrates’ courts

The backlog of cases in the criminal courts is likely to be a “pervasive issue” for several years, revealed a report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The Ministry of Justice expects significant backlogs to continue in the Crown Court for several years, and the number of cases waiting could be between 17% and 27% higher than pre-pandemic levels by November 2024.

The Ministry estimates that it needs an additional £500m for criminal courts and £1.7bn for legal aid, prisons and probation services to support from Covid. 

According to NAO, the pandemic “significantly affected” the work of the criminal justice system, requiring extensive changes in criminal courts to keep judges, court staff, and service users safe.

Additionally, the number of cases older than a year in the Crown Court between March 2020 and June 2021 reportedly increased by 302% and 435% for rape and sexual assault cases.

The backlog in the Crown Court had already increased by 23% in the year leading up to the pandemic, partly because the Ministry reportedly allocated an “insufficient” number of court sitting days.  

The backlog increased significantly during the pandemic, from 41,045 on 31 March 2020 to 60,692 on 30 June 2021.

In addition, waiting times reportedly increased most in London, with the average age of a case increasing by 63% from 164 days on 31 March 2020 to 266 days on 30 June 2021. These delays could increase the risk of individuals withdrawing from the process and cases collapsing, said NAO.

However, the report revealed that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) launched a courts recovery programme which increased Crown Court capacity by 30% between September 2020 and July 2021 through opening temporary courtrooms and modifying others.

Gareth Davies, head of 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 Ministry of Justice works effectively with its partners in the criminal justice system to minimise the delays to justice.”

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