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Court Case Backlog Worse Now than Before £477 Million Investment to Curb Delays, New Report Reveals

National Audit Office figures show MoJ way off target of reducing court case backlog by more than 14,000 cases and more than 6,000 are two years or more old

Plaque outside Central Criminal Court in London. Photo: Nando Machado / Alamy
The Ministry of Justice is way behind its target to reduce a huge backlog of court cases. Photo: Nando Machado / Alamy

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The Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) plan to reduce the record Crown Court backlog of 67,573 cases to 53,000 by March next year is no longer achievable, National Audit Office (NAO), Parliament’s spending watchdog has revealed.

Instead the figure is expected to be closer to 64,000 – a reduction of 3,500 cases, a report released Friday says.

This is despite some £477 million being allocated by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government in 2021 to improve case backlogs in the criminal justice system.  The size of the backlog is now 11% higher than when Dominic Rabb was Lord Chancellor in 2021. He is standing down as an MP when Parliament prorogues next week.

Boris Johnson’s Conservative government pledged £477 million to reduce the backlog in 2021. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

The figure is 78% higher than at the end of 2019 when the UK faced a national lockdown because of the pandemic. The report found over a quarter of the backlog cases have been waiting a year or more to be heard, and 6,523 are two years or more old.

The main reason why the backlog has grown is that prisons are filled to near capacity – which led the government to announce a week ago that it has started releasing prisoners early to try and clear space. This controversial move led to a clash between Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after it was revealed this included stalkers and those convicted of domestic abuse which alarmed victims.

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The prison population is also swelled by the number of people held on remand – which has reached 16,000, the highest figure in 50 years, while they wait for their cases to be heard.

Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Victims, witnesses and defendants are waiting an unacceptable amount of time for their cases to be heard, with the average Crown Court case taking almost two years. 

“Longer waits are damaging to victims’ mental wellbeing and increase the risk of the trial failing. Changes made to one part of the criminal justice system affect other parts of the system, for example increasing prison population pressures. The Ministry of Justice must get a grip on these impacts – understand them better and take coordinated, timely action so justice is delivered quicker, and the case backlog is reduced.”

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 The report also revealed that lack of oversight of the criminal justice system also contributed to the problem. For two years, the Criminal Justice Board, which brings together representatives from across the criminal justice system including the judiciary and is chaired by the Secretary of State for Justice, did not meet. This reduced oversight of action was to help the justice system recover from the pandemic. 

Other issues contributing to the backlog included a shortage of legal professionals working in criminal law; high rates of ineffective trials; an increase in complex cases such as adult rape; and cases delayed by Covid and the criminal defence barristers’ industrial action. The NAO also found that the actual levels of incoming and completed cases have been consistently lower than the MoJ forecast at the 2021 Spending Review.

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The courts also suffered from a lack of maintenance, with some court rooms being closed because of heating failures or water leaks. The ministry says this is no longer the main problem why cases are delayed.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson told Byline Times:

“The Crown Court sat for over 107,000 days last year, more days than at any point in the last seven years.

“We are also investing more in the system, rolling out remote hearings, extending the use of Nightingale courts and recruiting hundreds of judges to get victims the justice they deserve and put more offenders behind bars.

“The Government is pushing ahead with the largest prison expansion programme in 100 years – with 10,000 of the 20,000 additional places to be delivered by the end of 2025.”


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