The Ministry of Justice is facing “several years” of backlogs in the criminal courts because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and needs £2.2bn in additional funding to do the work, according to the National Audit Office.
The public-spending watchdog said that as of the end of June, MoJ and HM Courts and Tribunals Service were facing a backlog of nearly 61,000 crown court cases and more than 364,000 cases at magistrates’ court level.
It said that while the MoJ has an “ambitious long-term plan” to support recovery in criminal courts, the plan hinges on securing funding and resources. The NAO said the ministry believes it needs £500 million for criminal courts and £1.7bn for legal aid, prisons and probation services to support recovery.
The watchdog said the MoJ also acknowledges that it needs to do more work to assess the costs of various initiatives, develop data technology, and recruit more analysts.
The MoJ already had a significant backlog of court cases before the pandemic struck last year. The NAO said the number of crown court cases waiting to be heard increased by 23% in the 12 months to March 2020. However. this number increased by a further 48% over the following 15 months, reaching 60,692 at the end of June this year.
Today’s NAO report said the ministry expects the level of backlogs in crown-court cases to be significant for “several years” and predicts the number of cases waiting to be heard could still be between 17% and 27% higher than pre-pandemic levels in three years’ time.
It said the practical reality of criminal-case backlogs is that victims, witnesses and defendants have to wait longer for their cases to be heard and that delays have the potential to increase risks of key individuals withdrawing from the process and cases collapsing.
The NAO said it has also found that the MoJ and HMCTS are not yet working towards shared, strategic objectives for recovery in criminal courts, making it difficult to align cross-agency plans and to make strategic decisions on demand management.
NAO head Gareth Davies said the watchdog is recommending the MoJ work with other criminal-justice agencies to agree a set of shared, published objectives for recovery in criminal courts that consider the implications for the rest of the criminal justice system.
“Despite efforts to increase capacity in criminal courts, it looks likely that the backlog will remain a problem for many years,” he said.
“The impact on victims, witnesses and defendants is severe and it is vital that the Ministry of Justice works effectively with its partners in the criminal justice system to minimise the delays to justice.”
The report cautions that the pandemic “exacerbated” long-standing data challenges faced by the MoJ and HMCTS.
It says immediate challenges include missing data on court capacity and difficulties in factoring in behavioural impacts resulting from the pandemic, such as the rate of guilty pleas and not-guilty pleas.
Another issue is disjointed and fragmented data across the justice system, with individual agencies categorising, counting and recording cases in different ways with no common identifier. The NAO said the situation prevents officials from getting a “complete end-to-end view of demand”.
It said that the MoJ needs to devise and implement a plan to tackle the systemic barriers to collecting, using and sharing data effectively across the criminal justice system. The watchdog said that more systematic working with the judiciary, which has “a strong understanding of how long cases are likely to take”, will be part of the solution.
An MoJ spokesperson said the NAO had recognised the speed at which the department responded to Covid-19.
“In a matter of months our buildings were made safe, remote technology was rolled out across all courts, and Nightingale Courtrooms opened up and down the country to increase the space available for trials,” they said.
“We are already seeing the results, with outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts falling, and in the crown court, the backlog stabilising.”
Other measures being taken to reduce the backlog of court cases include making sure there is no limit on the number of crown court sitting days this year, reopening existing court rooms, and hosting thousands of hearings using remote technology, the MoJ said.