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‘Armageddon scenario’ – Government warned justice could be derailed by 200,000 court backlog in four years

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riminal justice in the UK could “cease to function” in the next four years without radical reform, analysts have warned,  amid predictions that the backlog of cases could rocket to almost 200,000 by 2024.  

The Government is under mounting pressure to tackle the courts crisis as victims and defendants face years of waiting for a trial and courts creak from lengthy periods of under-investment.  

The waiting list of crown court cases is on course to hit 50,000 before Christmas this year, due to the combined effect of Covid-19 and cost-cutting measures imposed by Government prior to the pandemic.  

Analysts from crime and justice consultancy Crest Advisory are today warning that the backlog could reach almost 200,000 by 2024 without major reforms and a dramatic increase in the number of available courtrooms.

The Criminal Bar Association called for the Treasury to bankroll a massive investment in justice to stave off an “Armageddon scenario”, while the Magistrates Association said the report includes “alarming” conclusions.  

The Ministry of Justice insisted that the report relies on “extreme assumptions that do not stand up to reasonable scrutiny” and has not taken into account government efforts to tackle the crisis.  

Unveiling the data today, Harvey Redgrave, chief executive of Crest Advisory, said criminal justice is at a “tipping point” and urged the Government to act swiftly to avert a “catastrophic risk to public confidence, procedural fairness, and effective enforcement of the law”.  

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Robert Buckland, Justice Secretary

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Robert Buckland, Justice Secretary

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“We are only just beginning to understand the potential impact of Covid-19 on the criminal justice system”, he said. “Without fundamental reform and significant investment in the upcoming spending review there is a real risk it may cease to function in any meaningful sense in the coming years.”

The Government allowed the backlog of cases to rise in 2019 by limiting the number of courtrooms in use and days that judges could sit across the crown courts estate in England and Wales.  

When the pandemic struck, jury trials were temporarily shut down and then social distancing restricted the number of cases that could be dealt with by the courts.  

The Ministry of Justice has set up 16 ‘Nightingale Courts’ to boost capacity during the pandemic, as part of an £80 million emergency package, and is now adding temporary portable buildings to existing courts to try to boost capacity. But a massive programme of selling off courts over the last decade has limited its options for the future.  

The Crest Advisory model claims the Government’s pledge to boost police numbers by 20,000 will heap more pressure on the justice system if more criminal cases are generated.  

The analysts have also predicted a rise in petty crimes like criminal damage and theft due to increasing unemployment thanks to the pandemic, as well as a spike in gang violence this winter.  

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James Mulholland, Criminal Bar Association chair

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James Mulholland, Criminal Bar Association chair

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They say the 2019 level of court use must be doubled to bring the backlog under control.  

James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “The Ministry of Justice wants to avoid the Armageddon scenario this study paints impacting on our courts and prison system so it is for Treasury to untie at least one of the hands tied behind Justice’s back and properly fund a sustainable investment to reopen and keep open a huge number of extra criminal courts for trials.

“Only a massive re-opening of existing criminal court rooms and making further additions to the court estate by the use of many more Nightingale courts for trials will begin to bring a still rising backlog under control and then, eventually, to reduce it.”

Bev Higgs, National Chair of the Magistrates Association, said the backlog in the magistrates courts has started to drop in recent weeks, but cautioned that long delays are “damaging”, especially to youth defendants.  

The Ministry of Justice questioned Crest’s assumptions that crime would rise sharply and said the 20,000 extra police officers would focus on crime prevention rather than bringing extra criminal cases.  

“These figures rely on extreme assumptions that do not stand up to reasonable scrutiny – such as vast rises in crime and charging which have no clear rationale”, a spokesperson said.  

“They also fail to take account of our extensive efforts to limit the impact of the pandemic on the justice system. As a result of these, magistrates’ court backlogs are already falling, Crown Courts are listing more jury trials every week, and we’re spending £80m on a range of measures to further drive this recovery, including the recruitment of 1,600 additional staff.”  

Source: Evening Standard Business News

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