Crown court backlog 'not due to systemic failure', lord chief justice rules



The High Court has criticised the approach taken by a Crown court judge who accused the government of ‘systemic failure’ for not conducting jury trials in a reasonable time.

In September, His Honour Judge Keith Raynor, at Woolwich Crown Court, refused to further extend the custody time limit for a teenager who had been held in custody for 321 days. Judge Raynor said the lack of available courtrooms to hear jury trials for defendants in custody was neither a good nor sufficient cause to extend the custody time limit.

In a judgment handed down last Friday, lord chief justice Lord Burnett of Maldon, and Lord Justice Holroyde, sitting in the High Court, declared that Judge Raynor’s decision that the prosecution had not shown that the need for an extension to the custody time limit was due to a good and sufficient cause ‘was one that was not open to him’.

The senior judges said the efforts to get jury trials up and running after lockdown demonstrated ‘deep practical problems’ which needed to be overcome. ‘The problem was not lack of funding nor systemic failure,’ they said.

In coming to his various conclusions, Judge Raynor relied on material which had not been the subject of any evidence or argument, they added.

Judge Raynor identified a series of factors which might have been taken, such as using external spaces (including cinemas) and reopening closed courts. ‘But in all these suggestions the judge gave no opportunity for the legal and practical implications of what he was proposing to be considered by the parties before him,’ the lord chief justice and Holroyde LJ said.

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Gemma Hewison, director of strategy and change at HM Courts & Tribunals Service, explained in her witness statement ‘why some are not feasible, others impractical or not preferable to the options being pursued’.

Also in her witness statement, dated 27 October, Hewison gave details of discussions involving the Ministry of Justice, HM Treasury and 10 Downing Street regarding £30m of additional funding for Covid recovery in the Crown courts. The judgment states that the funding is to support the creation of a further 40 Nightingale courts to conduct jury trials and an additional 40 jury trial courts within the HMCTS estate.

Hewison said modelling carried out by HMCTS suggested the outstanding jury trial caseload may fall to pre-Covid levels by March 2023.



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