“Delays in the Crown Court have reached a point where they are causing significant injustice,” the Commons justice committee says in a report published this morning. The government had made a mistake in 2019 when it reduced the number of days that judges were allowed to sit, the committee added.
To improve the situation, say MPs, there needs to be a long-term approach to investment. “The pandemic has made the situation worse but the factors responsible for increased delays over the past decade are deep-rooted.” The government had promised to recruit more judges but it had proved difficult to fill existing vacancies.
Last week, in anticipation of the committee’s report, the Ministry of Justice announced that courts could work at full capacity for a second consecutive year. “The same decision last year meant that nearly 17,000 more days were sat in the Crown Court than the year prior to the pandemic,” the government said.
In its report today, the justice committee is particularly critical about the lack of statistical information:
A major problem for this inquiry has been trying to work out what exactly is going on in the courts. As the lord chief justice said to us in May 2020, “because of the rather haphazard systems that still operate in a lot of our courts it has been extremely difficult to get reliable data”…
Many of the problems that we heard about during our inquiry, and continue to hear about, could have been avoided if better data collection had been built into the system much earlier…
Improving the quality of data in the justice system will help the Ministry of Justice to determine whether the courts have the capacity they need to deal with cases in a timely fashion.
Sir Bob Neill, the Conservative MP who chairs the justice committee, described the court system as “creaking”:
The government must work with the judiciary to ensure that there is sufficient staff and court space to allow trials to take place and the lengthy backlog to reduce. The physical estate has been left to crumble for too long and must be made fit for purpose. There must be sufficient numbers of judicial and clerical staff to cope with the volume of cases.
The committee found “significant gaps in the inspection regime for the justice system, with no inspectorate currently overseeing the civil, family or coroner courts. It called for a new courts’ inspectorate to improve accountability and transparency in the justice system.