Courts backlog grows during pandemic

Hundreds fewer criminal cases are dealt with at Crown Court because of the coronavirus pandemic, new figures show.
Newcastle Crown Court. Newcastle Crown Court.
Newcastle Crown Court.

Legal industry bodies say victims, witnesses and defendants are being failed by an underfunded criminal justice system – and were even before the pandemic.

Ministry of Justice figures show 373 cases were concluded at Newcastle Crown Court between April and June following a trial or sentencing hearing – a fall of 47% on the 699 cases dealt with between January and March.

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Between April and June last year, 742 cases were concluded – meaning the backlog of cases waiting to be dealt with by the court increased from 1,324 at the end of March to 1,363 at the end of June – a rise of ​three per cent.

Across England and Wales, the number of crown court cases concluded almost halved between April and June – 12,338, compared to 23,323 between January and March.

The Law Society of England and Wales, which represents solicitors, said the Covid-19 pandemic had merely exacerbated a significant existing backlog, caused by "years of underfunding and cuts".

President Simon Davis, said: “Justice is being delayed for victims, witnesses and defendants, who have proceedings hanging over them for months, if not years, with some trials now being listed for 2022.

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At magistrates courts the backlog soared by almost 100,000 cases during lockdown, reaching a record high 422,000 at the of June.

Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, which represents barristers, said: "We’ve seen what lack of funding for law and order achieves – rising crime, low detection rates, long delays to cases with many collapsing before they get anywhere near a court, victims of crime denied justice, and all because government after government has failed to invest in justice.

"The need for long term, significant investment is crucial across the entire justice system if it is to serve its purpose which is to enable people to exercise their rights in a timely and meaningful way.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said its response to the pandemic had been "world-leading", and that the crown court backlog had started to reduce since June.

It is also opening eight more ‘Nightingale Courts’ recruiting more than 1,000 new staff and rolling out technology and Covid-secure plexiglass screens to boost capacity.