Monday Message 12.04.21

With the arrival of Spring, we are beginning to see modest shoots of recovery in the Crown Court. Acknowledging this progress is just as important as ensuring it stays on course if we are not to risk an attack upon proven measures that have been at the heart of our criminal justice system for centuries for the protection of all.

Timely justice in court proceedings remains as ever dependent on ensuring sufficient numbers of court rooms are opened with sufficient budget for judges to sit so that jury trials can take place under one roof with justice delivered fairly for defendant and complainant alike.

We stated a year ago that, at least, a further 60 additional Crown Court rooms needed to be added to the existing estate in order to address the growing backlog of jury trials in a timely and safe, manner. As of this week, just over half that number of extra Crown court rooms has been opened. We need to continue with this process and to find and open a similar number within the next few months. The Common Video Platform is as important as it ever was in order that more administrative proceedings within the Crown Court are dealt with remotely to free up space within an enlarged court estate for a higher volume of in person, in situ jury trials to take place each week.

We began a sustained campaign in September 2019 to restore the budget for Crown Court sitting days which had been savaged by 15% just six months earlier. That cut forced perfectly good Crown Court rooms to remain locked and the number of outstanding trials to increase over the next 12 months whilst the overall case backlog grew to 40,218 by 22nd March 2020 from a “series low” of 31,916 at 31st March 2019.

The pandemic pushed that case backlog up to 57,516 as of 21st March 2021 but the last four weeks have brought a cautious degree of optimism that increased capacity within our courts is beginning to have a positive effect in that the backlog has remained steady at around this mark, having grown consistently for the previous 45 or so weeks. This plateauing is a sign that, at long last, an acceptance of the centuries-old strategy of ensuring that a trial has a judge, jury and courtroom available to hear it, is beginning to make a difference and to bring the backlog under control.

The number of trials being stood out remains at a high figure, 604 in the week to 21st March 2021 (comprising 539 vacated and 64 ineffective), but that is down from the record 757 trials that failed to take place in the week ending 24th January 2021 at the height of the second wave of Covid. In that January week, just 203 trials were resolved, comprising 134 effective and 69 cracked. Two months on by the week ending 21st March, with more of the existing Crown Court estate being used for trials, greater use of CVP for administrative proceedings and, crucially, more Nightingale Court rooms finally coming on stream for crime, that figure had increased to 274.

The focus for the next few months must continue to be the relentless pursuit of more court space for more in person jury trials. It is as simple as that. No other ideas need be entertained. The MOJ has to fulfil its obligations in relation to setting up 60 Nightingale Courts for crime. If it pursues that goal to its conclusion, there is no doubt that it will have a significant effect on the backlog whilst preserving the tried and tested principle of holding jury trials under one roof.

Keeping with this simple, affordable, strategy will ensure, once again, that timely justice is not a luxury for the privileged few but a given for all compelled to travel through our courts as complainants, victims and witnesses or those accused of crime.

CBA C21 Survey:

For those who have not yet done so, we urge you to complete the survey – the CBA has commissioned this survey of its members as part of its review of the problems currently facing users of the court system.

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