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English courts backlog to linger ‘for years’
Law Society of England and Wales President I Stephanie Boyce

22 Oct 2021 / courts Print

English courts backlog to linger ‘for years’, with delays until 2025

The British government’s own modelling suggests that a backlog of court cases may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025 at the earliest, according to a report in the Law Society Gazette of England and Wales.

The Gazette describes a report on the issue from the country’s public-spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), as “highly critical”.

The office said that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) were “not yet working towards shared, strategic objectives for recovering in criminal courts”, and had a “poor understanding” of how the court recovery programme had affected vulnerable and ethnic-minority users.

Two scenarios

According to the report, the Ministry of Justice’s latest models indicate that the backlog could be between 17% and 27% higher than pre-pandemic levels by November 2024.

Ahead of negotiations on its budget, the MoJ set out ambitious and cautious scenarios that forecast a backlog of 48,000 and 52,000 cases respectively by November 2024.

”Both scenarios assume increasing the use of part-time judges to unprecedented levels,” the watchdog’s report says. “Since the two sets of projections are very similar, it is difficult for decision-makers to understand the reasonable range of potential outcomes from their funding and other strategic decisions.”

The ministry then developed a third scenario, which assumed maintaining the funding agreed in the 2020 spending review, and forecast a backlog of 72,000 cases by November 2024.

Cases could collapse

The Crown court backlog increased by 23% in the year leading up to the pandemic, rising from just over 33,000 on 31 March 2019 to just over 41,000 a year later. The backlog has increased a further 48% since the onset of the pandemic – to more than 60,500 cases on 30 June this year.

Cases in the backlog on 30 June this year had been waiting an average of 230 days – 84 days longer than was the case at the end of March last year.

“Delays could mean more victims and witnesses withdraw from the process, increasing the likelihood of cases collapsing,” the report says.

Other “significant risks” identified by the NAO to efforts to reduce the backlog include judicial availability, the capacity of other criminal-justice agencies, and long-standing data limitations that obscure understanding of future demand.

‘Need for investment’

On a more positive note, HMCTS is praised for responding quickly in the early stages of the pandemic, prioritising staff and court-user safety, and access to justice for urgent cases.

"Despite efforts to increase capacity in criminal courts, it looks likely that the backlog will remain a problem for many years,” the Gazette quotes NAO head Gareth Davies as saying.

I Stephanie Boyce (president of the Law Society of England & Wales) said that the report highlighted “the lack of capacity, and the dire need for investment, resulting from years of cuts including court closures, underfunding of legal aid, and caps on judicial sitting days”.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland