Backlog of crown court cases could have 'major consequences' for victims and witnesses

Ministry of Justice figures show 56,544 crown court cases were waiting to be dealt with at the end of January.

The number of criminal cases waiting to be heard at crown courts in England and Wales is at its highest in a year and could have “major consequences” for victims and witnesses.

Inspectors from Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) warned the number of cases for prosecutors is increasing at an “alarming rate” and could have “major consequences” for victims and witnesses.

HMCPSI said delays in cases coming to court affect “the ability of victims, witnesses and defendants to recollect the events and can impact on their willingness to attend court to give evidence”.

According to Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures, 56,544 crown court cases were waiting to be dealt with at the end of January, compared to 55,676 cases in December.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland hoped to clear the backlog of cases by Easter this year. He is now aiming for Easter 2023. Credit: PA

This is a significant increase from the 38,411 cases from a year earlier, before the first lockdown which forced courts to close.

Overall, the backlog of criminal cases has fallen from a total of 455,374 in December to 441,791 in January. 

There has been a drop in the number of outstanding magistrates court cases, from 399,698 in December to 385,247 in January. But there are still 80,000 more cases compared to January of last year.

The majority of the public are worried about the backlog, according to a poll carried out for the Law Society of England and Wales, the Bar Council and The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives.

The Ministry of Justice says the pandemic has "posed an unprecedented challenge" to our criminal courts Credit: PA

Some lawyers say they are already seeing trials being listed for 2023 due to delays caused by the backlog.

The Government has said it is investing £450 million to “boost recovery in the courts and deliver swifter justice”, insisting this is “already yielding results”.

As part of this investment, the Government has opened more than 20 Nightingale courts have now opened with more opening soon.

As well as helping to clear the backlog, the new courts aim to boost capacity. Social distancing laws mean courts need more space. 

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said in June 2020 that he hoped to clear the backlog of court cases exacerbated by the pandemic by Easter this year. 

However, since then he has said he hopes the number of outstanding cases will be brought back to acceptable levels before Easter 2023.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The pandemic has posed an unprecedented challenge to our criminal courts, but hard-working staff and professionals have strained every sinew to continue to deliver justice for victims.

“Major challenges remain which is why we are spending hundreds of millions to drive the recovery further, deliver swifter justice and support victims.”