MPs slate Ministry of Justice over Crown Court backlog and judges

Hillier: MoJ needs to come up with plan to improve situation, not worsen it

MPs today slated the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) “meagre ambition” to reduce the Crown Court case backlog and warned that efforts to recruit judges will ignore the need to improve diversity.

Last year’s Budget gave the MoJ funding to reduce the backlog, which has nearly doubled since March 2019, to 60,000, to 53,000 over the next three years.

A public accounts committee (PAC) report, published today, said this was “unlikely to address unacceptable delays to justice for victims, witnesses, and defendants”.

Since lockdown in March 2020, the number of Crown Court cases waiting longer than a year has increased by more than 340%.

The PAC said it “remains unconvinced” of MoJ’s real “intentions to reduce waiting times in the Crown Court, given the slow pace of recovery” and that there are “significant, systemic challenges” to clearing the backlog, including the numbers of trained judges, legal professionals and local staff to support criminal courts.

Reducing the backlog to 53,000 by March 2025 relied on increasing the number of days that the Crown Court hears cases, from 100,000 in 2021-22 to 105,000 in 2022-23, then 106,500 in both 2023-24 and 2024-25.

“This requires a significant increase in the number of judges, for which the department’s plan does not seem credible,” the PAC said.

“Its plans are predicated on successfully recruiting 78 full-time, salaried circuit judges. This is despite only filling 52 of 63 positions during the previous recruitment round.

“The resulting dependence on deploying criminal barristers and solicitors as part-time judges, as well as increasing the work load of part-time judges, to make up shortfall reduces much-needed capacity within the legal profession to prosecute and defend cases.

“The Bar Council, Law Society and Criminal Bar Association all reported there are already severe pressures in recruiting and retaining criminal barristers and solicitors.”

In 2017, the Lammy review into how ethnic minorities were treated in the criminal justice system noted the importance of recruiting a diverse judiciary, and recommended a national target to achieve a representative judiciary by 2025.

In 2020, the judiciary published its diversity and inclusion strategy to improve the representation of under-represented groups within the judiciary.

But the PAC noted: “While discussing its plans in the session to boost judicial numbers, the department did not reflect on what is needed to maintain and improve the diversity of the judiciary.”

The MPs said they feared the MoJ would overlook this priority amid the efforts to boost the number of judges.

They also outlined concern that vulnerable users and people from ethnic minority backgrounds were potentially impacted disproportionately by efforts to tackle the Crown Court backlog, which they said the MoJ and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) “have not done enough to understand”.

The report said: “Since the start of the pandemic, HMCTS significantly increased the number of hearings held remotely using video technology. However, it only published its formal evaluation of remote hearings on 10 December 2021, nearly two years into the pandemic.

“The limited coverage of the experiences of those with disabilities or accessibility difficulties painted a mixed picture, which HMCTS is still reviewing. A third of people requesting reasonable adjustments felt their requests were denied.

“There is insufficient data on ethnicity for the department to assess its recovery plans or the pandemic’s impact on different groups. The department is continuing to work on improving the ethnicity data it collects.”

Other issues highlighted in the report were the “unacceptable delays” faced by victims of rape and serious sexual offences, which “compound and extend their suffering and lead to too many cases collapsing”, and doubts that the prison system would cope with the likely increase in prisoners, given the planned increase in police officers and planned reductions in the criminal case backlog.

PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier MP said the planned reduction in the backlog was “just not good enough”.

She continued: “The number of people waiting more than a year to have a serious criminal case heard has more than trebled since March 2020 from already unacceptably high levels. Government can’t keep shrugging off the question of what adding 20,000 new police officers to the mix will do.

“The Ministry of Justice must look at the challenges it’s facing in the round and come up with a plan that deals with them, not worsens them.”

An MoJ spokesman said: “The Crown Court backlog has fallen significantly in recent months and we are on track to get through a fifth more cases next year than in to the year running up to the pandemic.

“This is thanks to our half-a-billion-pounds plan to speed up justice – including unlimited court sitting days, Nightingale court extensions and greater powers for magistrates – while our £4b prison-building programme will deliver 20,000 more places by the mid-2020s.”

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