Crown court backlog has reached 'crisis levels', report warns

The backlog of crown court cases in England and Wales has reached “crisis levels”, with the increased remand population likely to disproportionately impact children and young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, a parliamentary committee has warned.

In a damning report published on Tuesday, the House of Lords constitution committee said funding cuts had already left courts and tribunals struggling going into the Covid-19 pandemic and were exacerbated by a “regrettable” failure to plan for such a threat.

While praising the “monumental effort” to keep courts and tribunals running, it expressed concern that remote hearings were disadvantaging vulnerable court users as well as those with protected characteristics.

Ann Taylor, the committee chair, said: “Recognition of the significant achievements in responding to the pandemic should not obscure the scale of the challenges that the courts continue to face.

“The courts system was not well prepared for disruption on the scale caused by the pandemic. Courts funding had fallen significantly in real terms over the preceding decade and a programme to modernise court technology was struggling to deliver the improvements needed.

“There is much work to be done to address the constitutional consequences of the pandemic for the courts. The government needs to renew its vision and increase the funding to achieve it.”

The report said the government should open more Nightingale courts and increase the number of sitting days as well as the number of part-time and retired judges sitting to tackle the “neither acceptable nor inevitable” backlog.

It also called on the government to increase the legal aid budget – which it said had fallen by almost 40% in less than a decade – to meet new challenges for access to justice that arose during the pandemic. Overall, funding for courts and tribunals had fallen by 21% in real terms in less than a decade, the report said.

The committee noted that more than half of the children and young people in custody in January were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, as were 87% of the children on remand in London between July and September last year. It said increased use of video remand hearings should be an “urgent priority” and the government should set out a timeline for reducing the backlog of criminal, family and employment cases.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The committee rightly recognises the huge efforts of courts staff and professionals to keep the justice system moving in the face of a global pandemic – scores of Nightingale courtrooms have been opened to boost capacity and remote hearings have increased by 4,000%.

“As a result of this hard work, the number of outstanding magistrates’ cases has fallen by 50,000 since last summer and more jury trials are being heard every week. Major challenges remain which is why the government is spending £450m to deliver speedier justice and drive this recovery further.”

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