How are our courts coping with the backlog?

Work with Offenders takes a close look at yesterday’s criminal court statistics

The quarterly criminal court statistics published jointly by the Ministry of Justice and the Office for National Statistics tell an interesting story.

On the one hand, they chart renewed activity in our criminal courts following the initial lockdown restrictions earlier in the year, on the other, it is clear that, despite the many adaptations including the introduction of “nightingale courts”, activity levels are still well below the norm.

Activity

There was a sharp increase in activity at Magistrates’ Courts in the third (July-September) quarter of the year compared to the April-June period. The number of new cases (“receipts”) was up just 11% but, critically, the number of cases dealt with (“disposals”) increased by 92% - albeit that figure remains below pre-COVID levels. Overall, the number of outstanding cases fell 2% but is 43% higher than the same period last year.

The picture for Crown Courts was that the number of receipts doubled and the number of disposals increased by 65% compared to the previous quarter. However, it is at Crown Courts where the backlog is becoming an increasingly intransigent problem – the volume of outstanding cases increased by 44% compared to the previous year and 19% on the previous quarter. The number of trial listings demonstrates the scale of the difficulty – in the third quarter of 2020, there were 1,654 trials listed, a marked increase from 113 trials in the previous quarter but well below the same three month period in 2019 (6,249).

Implications

We all know the old adage that it is important not solely for justice to be done but “to be seen to be done”. The extent of the delays means that confidence in our justice system (already increasingly shaky in recent times) is likely to dip further. If a person is arrested now but does not come to trial until 2022 or even 2023 (which is when some trials are being listed), will they feel that there is any connection between an offence they have committed and the punishment which they eventually receive? What if a person is innocent and has the false accusation of guilt hanging over them for years? How will victims feel if an assault or loss of property they have suffered is only addressed in the future? They are also practical problems for witnesses who may be disinclined to turn up to court such a long period after the crime and whose memory is hardly likely to be as fresh or reliable with such an extended interval since the event itself.

It is at times like this that it is important to remember just how busy courts are. The figures provided above are mainly expressed in percentages but if we deal in actual numbers, the size of the issue becomes much clearer. More than a quarter of a million cases (268,338) were dealt with in our Magistrates’ Courts in the third quarter of this year, even though that figure was lower than normal. There are 412,093 outstanding cases at Magistrates’ Courts with the number of trials growing particularly quickly.

Crown Courts do not, of course, deal with the same volume of cases. Even so these higher courts disposed of 20,300 cases in the third quarter of this year (20% down on the same period last year). At the end of the quarter, there were 50,918 outstanding cases at the Crown Court, an increase of 44% on the same period last year (35,478 cases). This is the highest level of outstanding cases seen since the end of 2015 and continues the consistent increases seen since the start of 2019.

One of the frustrations for those working in the criminal justice system is the knowledge that these backlogs of cases were already a very significant problem long before we were even aware of the existence of COVID-19.

The government continues to increase the number of additional (“nightingale”) courts to try to tackle the backlog but we must wait for the next set of quarterly figures to see if they are having any impact.