Hobhouse: Swift justice for victims and offenders needed

A robust and well-functioning justice system is a foundation stone of society.

But in England and Wales we are facing a soaring backlog of court cases.

The backlog of outstanding criminal cases in the Crown Court stood at 59,928 at the end of September. 13,202 cases in the backlog are more than a year old.

A Crown Court case now takes an average of 23 months from offence to completion.

Court backlogs have caused the number of people being held in prison on remand to rise by 48% since 2018.

The independent Chief Inspectors of Constabulary, the Crown Prosecution Service, Prisons, and Probation have identified the “unprecedented and very serious court backlogs” as “the greatest threat to the proper operation of the criminal justice system”.

Long delays increase the number of people held in prison on remand, putting even more strain on overcrowded prisons. It can also lead to victims and witnesses withdrawing, making it more likely that the case collapses.

The Government aims to reduce the Crown Court backlog to 53,000 by March 2025, but this would still leave it 59% larger than at the end of 2018.

It’s a mystery how they plan to achieve even this unambitious target when they are failing to recruit enough judges in the face of the criminal justice system workforce crisis. The number of full-practice criminal barristers fell by 11% between 2016-17 and 2019-20, and the permanent courts staff has shrunk by 10% since 2015.

72 ‘Nightingale’ courtrooms were opened between July 2020 and July 2021 to increase capacity, 38 of them serving the Crown Court, but the Chancellor has refused to fund the 33 extra Nightingale courtrooms requested by the Ministry of Justice.

The court backlog has grown massively during the pandemic but was already a growing problem before Covid hit. The Conservative Government cut the number of courts sitting days, leading to a 23% rise in the number of outstanding cases in the Crown Court in 2019-20.

Some people have proposed tackling the backlog by reducing the number of jurors and removing the right to a jury trial in certain cases.

This is a ridiculous suggestion – trial by jury has been a fundamental part of the British justice system for more than 800 years and is integral to upholding an individual’s right to a fair trial.

Police officers, court staff, judges and lawyers have worked tirelessly to keep our criminal justice system going through the Covid pandemic, but they have been let down by the Government’s failure to provide adequate support and resources.

A truly sickening consequence of this situation is that more than 1,300 rape cases are waiting to be brought before the Crown Court.

The backlog adds insult to injury. Survivors of sexual violence constantly relive their trauma while their court cases are pending. They desperately need closure and they deserve that perpetrators are swiftly brought to justice.

We cannot keep failing survivors of sexual violence. We need urgent improvements across our whole justice system to ensure survivors are not left waiting whilst their attackers walk free.

Today Liberal Democrat members called for a new target of halving the time from offence to sentencing for all criminals.

To achieve this, we are calling for:

  • Extra Nightingale courtrooms to increase capacity.
  • A workforce strategy to ensure there are enough criminal barristers.
  • A new data strategy across the criminal justice system, to ensure that capacity meets demand, and to understand the needs of all users, especially victims, vulnerable people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.
  • The rejection of any proposals to weaken the right to trial by jury
  • Extra funding for victims’ services.

We are also fighting to:

  • Restore community court buildings where still available and invest in new user-friendly premises where required and justified.
  • Reduce the number of people in prison on remand.
  • Make the legal aid system simpler and more generous for both criminal and civil cases, with everyone in receipt of means-tested benefits automatically eligible.
  • Establish a new right to affordable, reasonable legal assistance with a new, independent Justice Commission to monitor and enforce it.

Even before the pandemic, Conservatives let this backlog soar out of control. They need to now get a grip and ensure that justice is served.

Justice delayed is justice denied. The Conservative Government’s failure to get to grips with the backlog in the criminal courts is letting down victims and their families, witnesses, and defendants.

Read the full motion.

* Wera Hobhouse is the Member of Parliament for Bath. She is Liberal Democrat Leader of the House of Commons and the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Justice and Women and Equalities

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.

One Comment

  • Brad Barrows 13th Mar '22 - 5:56pm

    Strongly agree with everything in this article (though the claim about there having been a ‘British system of Justice for over 800 years…’ is way off the mark.) Bottom line – Justice delayed is justice denied.

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