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Criminal justice system 'close to breaking point', report warns

The Public Accounts Committee has recommended 'rapid and significant' improvements to the criminal justice system. Credit: Reuters

Victims and witnesses are being failed by a criminal justice system "close to breaking point", a new report has warned.

According to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the system has been "bedevilled by long-standing poor performance, including delays and inefficiencies", and cutbacks have affected the ability of courts to deliver justice.

The influential committee of MPs said around two-thirds of trials in the Crown Court were delayed or did not go ahead at all.

A backlog of 51,830 cases was awaiting a Crown Court hearing as of September last year, and the system was "not good enough" in supporting victims and witnesses, the committee found.

One in five witnesses were made to wait four or more hours to give evidence in court, with just 55% saying they would be prepared to do so again.

The length of time victims were forced to wait between an offence being committed and the conclusion of their case ranged from 243 days in Durham and 418 days in Sussex.

Official data revealed that victims of crime in North Wales had a seven in 10 chance of their crown court trial going ahead, but victims in Greater Manchester have just a two in 10 chance.

Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier. Credit: PA

The committee also found that the Crown Prosecution Service was struggling to find counsel to prosecute cases as a result of legal aid cuts.

PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier said: "These are damning statistics. The system is overstretched and disjointed. Victims of crime are entitled to justice, yet they are at the mercy of a postcode lottery for access to justice."

The committee recommended "rapid and significant" improvements in the service provided to victims and witnesses.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the justice secretary has acknowledged that the criminal justice system needs "urgent reform".

"That is why we have embarked on comprehensive measures to improve our prisons and courts, backed by over £2 billion of investment, to build a swifter, more certain justice system," she said.

Our plans will bring modern technology into our courts to better meet the needs of everyone who uses our services, and will replace ageing and ineffective prisons with new buildings designed to support rehabilitation. We welcome this report and will reflect on the recommendations.

– Ministry of Justice spokesman