Crown Court backlog reaches new record high as faith in justice systems erodes

updated on 15 April 2024

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The Ministry of Justice has revealed that the Crown Court backlog hit a new high of 67,573 between October and December 2023. This figure means the UK government’s “unambitious target” to reduce the backlog to 53,000 by March 2025 is looking “improbable”. Of the 67,573 cases, 28% of them had been open for more than a year.

Law Society President Nick Emmerson said: “Decades of underfunding and cuts have left us with a justice system which is failing victims and defendants, who are having to wait far too long to access justice, with thousands of cases outstanding for more than two years.”

Emmerson also cited the dilapidated courtrooms as a contributing factor to the delays before adding: “There aren’t enough judges and lawyers to cover the cases. Pay and conditions to work in the system are unattractive and court staff are undermanned and under pressure. Eligible people can’t access legal aid because changes to the means test have been delayed. Prisons are overcrowded with inmates being released early to free up space.”

Baroness Newlove, victims’ commissioner, who was previously under the impression that the backlog was because of “a surge in referrals by police and prosecutors”, explains that the volume of new cases is down 4% but the backlog continues to climb, suggesting “deeper systemic issues”.

The magistrates’ court backlog also increased by 7% on the previous quarter, rising to 370,731 at the end of December 2023. 

Emmerson added: “Only increased and sustained funding can stop the ongoing collapse of our criminal justice system.”

Meanwhile, Baroness Carr of Walton-on-the-Hill, the lady chief justice, called for “medium to long-term scrutiny of the criminal justice system” and suggested removing trial by jury for some offences. However, this proposal was met with some backlash. Speaking to The Times, Tana Adkin KC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “Whatever the cause of the backlog in criminal cases that now requires the justice system to increase its capacity, this should not be at the expense of fair and effective justice for all — the 12-person jury not only has been demonstrated to lack bias but also has been demonstrated over centuries to deliver effective justice.”