COVID operating hours not the answer to criminal courts backlog, warns Law Society

Potentially discriminatory COVID operating hours are unlikely to have a significant impact on the hefty criminal court backlogs, the Law Society of England and Wales has warned.

COVID operating hours have been piloted at seven Crown Court centres as part of HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS) plan to address the backlog of outstanding cases, which now exceeds 53,000 in the Crown Courts and 479,000 in the magistrates’ courts.*

The Law Society has responded to the HMCTS consultation on whether to extend the model to 65 more courts from January.**

“Our primary concern throughout the pandemic has been to ensure that justice continues to be delivered and that all users are safe,” said Law Society president David Greene.

“After years of underfunding and cuts, there was already a significant backlog in the criminal courts which has been exacerbated by the pandemic."

“The result is that justice is being delayed for victims, witnesses and defendants, who have proceedings hanging over them for months, if not years, with trials now being listed for 2022."

“We all appreciate the difficulties thrown up by the circumstances and that court staff and others in the justice process are working hard in the face of significant challenges, and we share the objective of seeking to reduce the backlog in the criminal justice system."

“But we remain to be convinced that COVID operating hours has delivered, or will deliver, any significant additional court capacity."

“Although more cases have been disposed of during COVID operating hours, it appears to have been largely due to the fact that shorter, less complex cases are allocated for these times, which means that a greater number of cases can be allocated, and therefore a greater number of those cases crack."

“It's our view that the vast majority of the benefits observed in the pilots would equally have been delivered had the same mix of cases been allocated to courts operating normal court hours."

“Given the additional costs of running COVID operating hours courts we do not believe these proposals deliver value for money for the taxpayer or will achieve the objective of clearing the backlog."

“We are also concerned about the potential for discrimination to members with caring responsibilities."

“We believe the additional resources it takes to run COVID operating hours should instead be used to open additional Nightingale Courts – which would increase court capacity and do much more to reduce the case backlogs.”  

Our response also outlines our concerns about the short consultation timeframe, insufficient data to support a further rollout of COVID operating hours and lack of transparency around the duration of the proposals.

Notes to editors

*HMCTS March – November figures. As of week ending 22 November, there were 479,489 outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts and 53,318 outstanding Crown Court cases.

**Read our consultation response in full

About the Law Society

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Press office contact: Nick Mayo | 020 8049 4100

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