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What’s happening with the court backlogs?

Work with offenders takes a close look at the latest official figures

In the week that Barristers in criminal cases have gone on strike, there is more attention than usual on the Criminal Court Statistics Quarterly bulletin which covers the first quarter of this year. It is claimed that as many as 80% of criminal trials were disrupted by the strike action which is planned to continue and grow in intensity over the next four weeks – Barristers walked out on Monday and Tuesday of last week and plan to go on strike for an additional day every week. Barristers have rejected a proposed 15% rise in their fees for undertaking legal aid work with members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) have said this is too low and called for a minimum 25% wage increase. Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the CBA, told the BBC they had already lost a quarter of specialist criminal barristers over the last five years, with 300 leaving last year. It’s obvious that this industrial action will add to the existing Crown Court backlogs but let’s have a look at the figures and see whether progress is being made.

The court statistics

The latest figures show some slow progress, albeit with more in the Magistrates’ than Crown Courts.

Magistrates’ Courts

The lower courts are still not as busy as they were before the pandemic, although the numbers of both new cases (“receipts” in the official jargon) rose by 7% on the previous quarter, the number was still a considerable 17% lower than the first quarter of 2020. The number of cases dealt with (“disposals”) increased 15% on the previous quarter and 16% on the previous year, with most of this rise due to a 28% increase in ‘summary motoring’ disposals in the latest quarter, most of which are dealt with via the (in some quarters controversial) single justice procedure where the defendant does not go to court. Substantially more cases were dealt with than came in with the result that the number of outstanding cases fell by 5% on the previous quarter and 13% on the previous year. At the end of March 2022 there were 344,261 outstanding cases at the magistrates’ court. One note of caution is that the time from offence to completion at the magistrates’ court increased by 4% on the previous quarter – returning close to peaks seen in 2021. It may be that true performance is being masked by the number of motoring matters being expedited through the courts with all other cases being processed more slowly.

Crown Courts

It is a similar but more complex picture for Crown Courts. The number of receipts and disposals continues to grow (although again, they remain below pre-pandemic levels), more cases were dealt with, resulting in a small (1%) fall of outstanding cases to 58,653 at the end of March. Whether this progress can be sustained is questionable since there was a bigger rise in new cases (9%) than completed ones (5%) in the quarter.

There has been no progress on the ineffective trial rate (an ineffective trial is the term for a case which does not start when planned and is a major reason for the backlog, since defendants, witnesses and lawyers who had made themselves available for the trial will have to do the same at some future point) remains at the troubling level of 27% (between 2014-2019 it ranged between 13%-19%).

The data show an improvement in “timeliness” the time from offence to the case being completed at Crown Court but this remains at a staggering 412 days. The number of outstanding cases which have been open for one year or longer continues to increase – up from 25% to 27% in the quarter under consideration.

Conclusion

The impact of the Barristers’ strike will not be seen until the next two sets of figures, nevertheless the impact on slow justice on victims and the accused continues to be a subject of national concern.

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