The number of outstanding cases waiting to be heard by crown courts in England and Wales has been rising sharply since coronavirus hit.
The criminal justice system in England and Wales is facing an extraordinary and extremely serious threat as a backlog in cases continues to grow during the pandemic. Figures released by the Ministry of Justice at the end of June showed an eye watering 60,692 cases were waiting to be brought to court.
Since the start of the pandemic, the backlog has risen by 19,000 with some trials being pushed back as far as 2023, raising concerns about the impact on victims waiting years for justice and defendants on remand. With the increased remand population likely to disproportionately impact children and young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds according to official advice handed to minister officials. The advice states that "defendants who are black, mixed race, Chinese or from other ethnic groups, males, or children, are more likely to be remanded in custody during any point in Crown Court proceedings" The statement continues "Therefore, we consider that temporarily extending the custody time limit in the Crown Court in respect of those awaiting a trial will disproportionate impact on people with these protected characteristics".
Griff Ferris, the legal and policy officer at Fair Trials, a global criminal justice watchdog, said "It's shocking that the government was aware of the extreme impact extended custody time limits would have on people who are black and other ethnic minority groups, and yet they went ahead with it anyway. The government knew it's actions would lead to more black people being held in custody for longer, despite being more likely to be released after a trial".
Covid has undoubtedly chiseled open fresh cracks as well as re-exposing the structure of the justice system. And frustratingly for solicitors, barristers, and judges in the criminal justice system is that hundreds of court buildings were sold off at a time when cuts to police and prosecutors may have temporarily depressed crime figures. Now, as an emergency measure, Nightingale courts (a temporary court) are being hastily hired to make good the shortfall for socially distanced hearings.
Concerningly, entitlement thresholds for legal aid criminal cases have not been updated for years meaning the number of unrepresented defendants is growing as deep cuts have made access to justice increasingly difficult to many on lower incomes.
However, in April, a deal was struck over emergency funding and the Lord Chief Justice will be able to ask the government for further funding to open up more court rooms in England and Wales, wherever judges are available. A MoJ spokesperson said "There will be no limit on the number of days Crown Court sit for the next financial year"
The government promised that 250 out of a possible 490 Crown courtrooms will be available to use by the end of October. A MoJ spokesperson said as a result of their actions to improve the long term outcome court backlogs are already falling. Crown Court are listing more jury trials every week, and in excess of £80 million has been spent on a range of measures to further drive their recovery, including the recruitment of 1,600 additional staff.
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