[Image credit: Arms over the entrance to the Crown Court and County Court in St Aldates’, Oxford. Copyright © 2006 Kaihsu Tai. ]
The House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts has published a report on reducing the backlog in criminal courts. The committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the accounts “showing the appropriation of the sums granted by Parliament to meet the public expenditure, and of such other accounts laid before Parliament as the committee may think fit.”
• Unacceptable delays
Victims, witnesses and defendants are subject to an unacceptable delay to justice. The report concludes that the issue is unlikely to be addressed by the Ministry of Justice’s “meagre ambition” to reduce the Crown Court backlog by less than 8,000 cases by March 2025.
The number of cases in the Crown Court increased from 33,290 in March 2019 up to 59,928 cases in September 2021. Since March 2020, those cases waiting for longer than a year has increased by over 340%. The current aim is to reduce the backlog to 53,000 cases by March 2025, but the committee was unconvinced by the department’s intentions, given the slow pace of recovery.
Evidence was taken in December 2021, and in January 2022, an announcement was made that magistrates would be able to give longer prison sentences. It is expected that this will reduce the number of cases that will need to be sent to the crown court as the magistrates will have that greater sentencing power.
• Victims of rape and serious sexual offences
Unacceptable delays are being caused for these particular victims; this impacts their suffering and can lead to the collapse of cases. The number of these cases waiting for longer than a year has increased by 400% since the pandemic. The longer a victim has to wait, the more likely the witness will withdraw from the process.
The Ministry of Justice has put more funding into victim support, increasing from £92 million in 2019-20 to £185 million by 2024-25. Other plans have been made to increase the number of independent sexual violence advisors (ISVA) to support those victims. Other actions may impact the number of these cases in the backlog, but that impact is not yet known.
A significant increase in the number of judges would be required to reduce the backlog to 53,000 in the time proposed. Such a reduction would involve increasing the number of days that the Crown Court hears cases. In this respect, the department’s plan does not seem credible. Their plan details the recruitment of 78 full-time salaried circuit judges even though they only recruited 52 of the required 63 positions on the last recruitment round. Without more judges in full-time positions, the result would be a reliance on current part-time judges, which would mean a shortfall in barristers’ availability to prosecute and defend the cases.
The committee was unconvinced that the prison system will be able to cope with an increase in prisoners. The government announced in 2019 there were recruiting 20,000 police officers, which the department expects will lead to a rise in cases before the courts and, therefore, custodial sentences. In July 2021, there was a predicted shortfall of 4,000 prison places by the ned of 2023. Funding has since been secured, but that will only cover half of the shortfall. No contingency has been put in place if the extra police presence does result in an increase in cases. The department has previously undelivered on promises to create additional prison spaces, and there is a backlog of maintenance required to keep existing places fit for purpose. Sustained progress is essential if the system is to cope.
• Vulnerable users
Those from ethnic minority backgrounds and vulnerable users are said to have been disproportionately disadvantaged by efforts to tackle the backlog. The number of hearings held by video technology was increased, but there is limited coverage of the experiences of those with disabilities and/or accessibility issues. One-third of people requesting reasonable adjustments did feel their requests were denied. There is insufficient data on ethnicity to be able to assess the department’s recovery plans or the impact on different groups.
• Performance data
There has been a long-overdue move towards bringing the criminal justice system data together. However, it is unclear how the department intends to use the data to improve performance. A national scorecard and an adult rape scorecard were produced in December 2021. The scorecards brought data together that included the size of the backlog, timeliness and victim attrition.
There are also plans to produce police scorecards; the committee expressed concerns that there would be a risk of creating perverse incentives as organisations concentrate on the metrics the department selects to publish. The department and HMCTS do not have the data necessary to manage the flow of cases. Both are relying on a new case management system to address the issue, but HMCTS has paused its roll-out.
The Ministry of Justice should explore what reasonable expectations could be set for the length of time for a case to be completed. Following discussions with the judiciary, the findings should be reported to the committee within the next six months.
The progress on the recruitment of ISVAs needs to be reported in the Ministry of Justice Treasury Minute response. The department also needs to set out its plan to assess the impact of its measures to support the victims of rape and sexual violence.
In the Treasury Minute response, the department must set out the specific actions it will be taking to improve recruitment and still improve diversity in the judiciary.
The department should set out how resilience is to be built across the criminal justice system. In particular, the department needs to set out how it will make sure there are enough prison places to meet the expected demand.
Plans to specifically evaluate the experience of victims, witnesses and defendants need to be set out, focusing on those deemed vulnerable and from ethnic minority backgrounds.
The department should set out how data it has developed and published will lead to improvements in performance and victims’ experiences.
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