Sustained investment needed in threadbare criminal justice system

New arrangements to increase court capacity will see leases extended at many Nightingale courts until April 2022, more Crown Courts rooms opening their doors as restrictions are lifted and judges given the option to choose longer operating hours under new ‘temporary operating arrangements’ (TOA) unveiled by the government.*

Backlogs in the criminal courts pre-date the pandemic but have been greatly exacerbated by it. There are more than 57,000 outstanding Crown Court cases and more than 450,000 in the magistrates’ courts.**

With some trials delayed until 2023, victims, witnesses and defendants are being denied timely access to justice and reportedly losing faith in the criminal justice system.***

“We welcome news that more Crown Court rooms are able to be opened as restrictions ease and leases have been extended at many Nightingale courts,” said Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce.

“Throughout the pandemic, when physical court capacity was at its lowest, we repeatedly called for Nightingale courts to be opened in far greater numbers to allow for jury trials to continue safely.

“However physical space is no longer the only or most pressing problem. It is now becoming apparent that HM Courts and Tribunals Service is struggling to find enough judges and staff to be able to operate existing court rooms and sessions.

“For the criminal courts to run at capacity, as well as enough court rooms, you need enough judges, court staff, prosecutors and defence lawyers. But years of underfunding and cuts including court closures, caps on judicial sitting days and lack of investment in legal aid have hit hard.

“When the criminal justice system and those who work within it are already stretched to breaking point, it is very difficult to see how any extended hours could work.

“We remain concerned that extended hours will have a disproportionate impact on advocates with caring responsibilities. Moreover, we are unsure how practical it will prove to implement such measures, given the demands this will place on court staff, judicial time and lawyers; or to what extent any extended sessions will actually increase available capacity in practice.

“It will be vital that the judiciary take full account of the views of court users before proceeding with any proposals to sit extended hours.

“If and when the UK government comes up with any further proposals that can overcome the capacity constraints, we will consider them on their merits based on whether they will actually help to clear the backlogs without any disproportionate adverse impacts on the justice system or those working within it.

“In the meantime, we will continue to call for the sustained investment across the threadbare criminal justice system which is required to tackle the backlogs and ensure timely access to justice for victims, witnesses and defendants.”

Notes for editors

* Read the government announcement here

** Figures for week ending 23 May – 453,482 outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts and 57,503 outstanding Crown Court cases.

*** Half of victims who suffer violent crime lose faith in justice, Daily Express, 23 July 2021

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