The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) must publish data on the backlogs of individual criminal courts, a group that campaigns to improve public data has said.
The Centre for Public Data said the move would “provide scrutiny over which courts are succeeding or struggling to tackle the backlog” and help ensure that resources were directed to the right place.
The centre said poor data on the 400,000 cases waiting to be heard in the criminal courts undermined efforts to tackle the backlog, making it difficult to understand its composition and “how effective interventions have been in tackling it”.
In the research paper Data and statistical gaps in criminal justice, funded by the Legal Education Foundation’s Justice Lab, the centre said it had identified four “priority areas” in the criminal justice system where there was a “clear need” for better data: remand and bail, sentencing, low-level offences such as anti-social behaviour, and courts operations, including the backlog.
Researchers said they had studied “hundreds of independent reports and parliamentary questions to identify common needs for data expressed by MPs and civil society” which had not been addressed by the MoJ.
Earlier this month, the centre called on the MoJ to publish basic information on unrepresented defendants in the magistrates’ courts, arguing that it would be “relatively straightforward” to extract it from the Common Platform.
In a separate paper on the criminal court backlog, the centre said the “effective backlog may be more severe than headline figures suggest” and could even have doubled in the wake of the pandemic.
“All cases have different demands, some take longer and require more staffing and resources than others. Without a clear understanding of the cases in the backlog, it will be difficult to assess the scale of response needed, or how well the government is providing that response.
“This could mean more information on delays in individual courts, or the proportion of trials that are ineffective for certain offences, or the proportion of cases with guilty pleas in the backlog.
“A clearer understanding of what the backlog looks like and the causes affecting it would help policymakers channel attention and resources to the parts of the system most in need.
“It would provide a better picture of the efficacy of costly government interventions and, most importantly, would support the victims of crime currently trapped in the system.”
The centre said that there were “dramatic differences” in the caseload of individual courts, but no data on where cases took the longest to progress, apart from at the regional level.
It recommended that timeliness data should be broken down not only by individual courts, but by specific offences, both in the magistrates’ court and the Crown Court.
The MoJ should also publish data on the reasons why trials were vacated so that people could understand the “typical reasons why trials might not go ahead as planned” and take action to improve the situation.
Further data should be published on the pleas of defendants currently in the Crown Court backlog to “understand the proportion of cases that will result in more complex, time-consuming jury trials”.
Other recommendations included the government meeting its “unmet commitment” to publish sentencing data for individual courts, and on crimes like domestic abuse and hate crimes.
Elsewhere, the report called for the length of time prisoners were held in custody on remand to be published and for data on low-level offences and out-of-court disposals.
Anna Powell-Smith, director of the centre, commented: “Data gaps in the criminal justice system mean that questions of significant public interest cannot be answered.
“The Ministry of Justice has a responsibility to fill the gaps that it can. Good data is essential – it cannot be an optional extra.”
Dr Natalie Byrom, director of Justice Lab, added: “Only when these gaps are addressed can we properly understand the nature of the deep-seated problems that exist and start to develop evidence-based solutions to fix them.”