Target to cut court backlog cannot be met, says watchdog

The government’s target to reduce unprecedented criminal court backlogs in England and Wales cannot be met, the national spending watchdog has concluded.

The National Audit Office (NAO) says the delays are affecting victims and risking cases collapsing.

It reveals that a key minister-led body that should have been involved in solving the crisis did not meet once in a two-year period.

There are 67,573 cases waiting to be dealt with in Crown Courts - a backlog that began before the pandemic.

The number of cases rapidly shot up when courts were closed under social distancing - and the backlog worsened as lawyers quit or went on strike in a major pay dispute.

In October 2021, ministers set a target to reduce the backlog to 53,000 by March 2025, hoping that extra spending on judges and temporary courtrooms would work.

But the NAO says the backlog has got larger, meaning the target is no longer achievable.

Officials now project the backlog could reduce to 64,000 by March 2025, but there is no formal target.

A quarter of the cases have now been waiting for at least a year to reach a verdict, and more than 6,500 for two years.

Victims wait on average 22 months from an offence for a verdict in a Crown Court.

“Delays are exacerbating the impact on victims and witnesses, as well as increasing the risk of cases collapsing,” said the NAO.

“Longer delays mean victims and witnesses may withdraw from proceedings, or their recollection of evidence declines over time. It can also impact victims’ mental wellbeing, and that of defendants awaiting trial.”

Matt Hayward reported a case of childhood abuse seven years ago, and his court date has been delayed five times.

Mr Hayward said that while he was fortunate to have had support from his family, the wait for perpetrators to face justice does take a toll on victims.

"When you’re going through the court system into a trial you put your life on hold and when those dates keep getting pushed back, and they don’t just keep getting pushed back by a week a month, they get pushed back by years. That’s very hard," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"It almost seems that there isn’t a lot of justice when it’s having that kind of effect on you and your family."

Not enough barristers

Appearing on the same programme, Mary Prior KC - the vice chair of the Criminal Bar Association - acknowledged the affects that the delays have had on victims.

But she said an initiative to fast track sexual cases where people have been waiting for trial for more than two years through the system by the end of July has been working.

However, Ms Prior argued the fundamental problem is that there are not enough criminal law barristers to work through the backlog, and recruitment to the field has been low.

"The major problem is that if we... try and persuade people to do crime, they’re put off by the hours that have to be worked, the additional stresses and strains of the job, and comparatively much less income than they can earn in other less stressful fields of law," she said.

According to the Bar Council, the number of criminal barristers in England and Wales had dropped to about 2,400 in 2020-21 from 2,670 in 2019-20.

Dominic Raab
Dominic Raab was justice secretary on two different occasions in the two-year period from July 2021 [Reuters]

The report reveals that the Criminal Justice Board, a body chaired by the justice secretary aimed at solving problems across the system, did not meet at all between July 2021 and July 2023.

During that two-year period, there were four different justice secretaries, with Dominic Raab in post for 18 months of the period.

That lack of meetings, said the NAO, “reduced oversight of action to help the justice system recover from the pandemic”.

Prison pressures

The report comes as the Ministry of Justice, police and the courts are trying to reduce the number of offenders in the prison system amid an overcrowding crisis.

One scheme is allowing some offenders out of jail up to 70 days before the end of their sentence - while another is attempting to slow down the rate of newly accused criminals going in.

Officials told the NAO that the prison overcrowding crisis was the most pressing problem in reducing the Crown Court backlog, because there were now 16,000 people in cells waiting for a trial or to be sentenced after being found guilty - a 50-year record.

The watchdog’s verdict will confirm the view of many across criminal justice that the system is in crisis with no clear solution, whoever wins the general election.

Tana Adkin KC, who chairs the Criminal Bar Association which represents barristers, said: “The NAO report confirms that which criminal practitioners have known for years - that the system remains in crisis without a plan for sustained investment, despite the repeated warnings.”

The NAO’s report was scheduled for publication before the general election was called on Wednesday.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The Crown Court sat for over 107,000 days last year, more days than at any point in the last seven years.

“We are also investing more in the system, rolling out remote hearings, extending the use of Nightingale courts and recruiting hundreds of judges to get victims the justice they deserve, and put more offenders behind bars.”