Combined outstanding cases in the magistrates and Crown courts approached 500,000 over the summer, new figures show, but there are signs that the system is starting to perform better.
Raw data published by HM Courts & Tribunal Service show that by 1 July there were 44,539 outstanding cases in the Crown court in England and Wales and 445,412 cases in the magistrates’ court. Since 1 March, the last figure collected before lockdown, the backlog had increased by 11% in the Crown court and by 32% in the magistrates’ court. By the start of July this year, the number of outstanding Crown court cases had increased year-on-year by 29%, and in the magistrates’ court by 48%.
The figures cast a spotlight on the monumental task of trying to reduce the backlog that was significant before the pandemic and has snowballed since the shutdown of many court services since the spring. The ongoing restrictions on social interaction have meant that holding trials continues to be a challenge.
There was a sharp decrease in April in the number of receipts recorded in the courts as the lockdown reduced criminal activity. But despite this, the number of receipts has outstripped disposals in every month since lockdown – albeit the difference has reduced. In the month to 1 April, for example, there were 78,889 cases received in the magistrates’ court and just 25,306 disposals. By July, there had been 97,750 receipts and 86,961 disposals.
In the Crown court, the 7,385 cases disposed of to in the month to 1 July was actually more than the disposals in the month immediately pre-lockdown, but are 20% down on the same period in 2019.
Reflecting on the figures, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘The new video technology we rolled out earlier this year has been used in thousands of trials and we’re already seeing the number of outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts falling as a result.
‘This is a huge step in getting the justice system back up to speed, but we accept that there is still work to boost capacity and to reduce delays.’
The department says that opening more Nightingale Courts, rolling out Plexiglass in courtrooms and extending operating hours will help to deliver speedier justice.
Last week the MoJ unveiled plans to employ 1,600 new court staff and increase custody limits from 182 days to 238 days. So-called ‘Covid operating hours’ are also being explored to see whether court buildings can be used for trials outside the standard weekday times of 10am to 4pm.
In March, almost half of all courts were closed and jury trials paused in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but 90% of courts are now open again, and HMCTS aims to have opened 250 rooms suitable to hear jury trials by the end of October.