Crown court judges to address court backlogs through game-changing guidelines

updated on 25 January 2023

Reading time: two minutes 

For the past 18 months, members of the Crown Prosecution Service, police chiefs, lawyers, the Ministry of Justice, and the HM Prison and Probation Service formed a working party to update guidelines for judges in what’s been labelled a “change in culture”. The guidelines were rolled out from 16 January.  

The move is expected to result in a stagnant rise in guilty pleas while cutting the number of cases awaiting trial. 

Prior to covid-19 and the criminal barristers strike, the crown court backlog in England and Wales sat at 35,774 cases. Now, the latest data suggests there are as many as 70,000 crown court cases waiting to be heard, with the majority awaiting a jury trial. 

Speaking to The Times Lord Justice Edis, the senior presiding judge who chaired the working party, explained that the new guidelines have been designed to remove “blockers” in the system.  

Before the guidelines were introduced, a recurring problem was that around half of the cases heard at pre-trial hearings were labelled “ineffective” and sent back into the queue of backlogged cases. Common reasons these cases were unable to proceed included incomplete case files or defendants being without sufficient legal advice to enter a plea.  

 In light of the new guidelines, which have been described as a “game-changer” by Lord Justice Edis, everyone involved at the initial hearing must come fully prepared to proceed to trial, with any reasons for delay being investigated by the judge. On top of this, all defendants are expected to have received legal advice; the police are also increasing video slot availability for defendants already in custody to speak with a lawyer.  

The “blockers to progress in the first 28 days” had been identified by the working party, with Lord Justice Edis stating that “if these things were acted on, it could make a really significant difference”.