Monday Message 26.10.20

Chair’s Update:
James Mulholland QC

The latest statistics released by the CPS on 22nd October reveal that, as of the end of June 2020, it had over 170,000 live cases in the system, an increase of a third from March. In the Crown Court, the number of live cases went up to 47,566. There can be no doubt that a much larger increase will be reflected in the next set of quarterly figures as very few cases had progressed through the Magistrates’ Court to the Crown Court by this stage because of limited capacity.

We are now a week away from the promised 250 courtrooms actually conducting Crown Court trials. An analysis of the trial rooms in use today, including available Nightingale Courts, amounts to less than 200, estimated at 195.  We are still not at the stage where the number matches the limited courtrooms available for jury trials last year and which managed to deal during that period with only about one third of the effective trials that are currently outstanding. Meanwhile the number of vacated trials continues to increase.

An indication of just how many more crown court rooms the justice system needs beyond the minimum 250 ‘trial ready’ courts, comes from the last week of February 2020, deemed ‘pre Covid’ by the MOJ, when due to a policy of budget cuts, perfectly good courtrooms were forced to stay idle. 207 trials were effective and yet 292 trials were vacated.

The ongoing lack of capacity and the increase in the Custody Time Limits period hits hardest those in custody waiting to be tried. At the end of June 2020, the prison population was just over 79,453. This figure was comprised of 11,388 pre-trial detainees. Consequently, in summer, 1 in 7 of all those in prison was awaiting trial. This is the highest annual figure in five years and an increase of 25% over the last year.

Statistics released on Friday show the prison population to have remained generally consistent at 79,164. However, the number of those awaiting trial in custody has almost certainly increased. As recently as 20th September, five times the number of trials were being vacated as were taking place and it is estimated that there may well now be as many as 15,000 waiting for their cases to be heard. This amounts to just under 1 in 5 of those incarcerated with many innocent people amongst them.

Further, MOJ data from June shows that many of the defendants on remand had been charged with matters not routinely associated with custody. For example, 1,337 (12%) were awaiting trial on theft charges. That means that a significant proportion of those individuals may serve a longer sentence than they would receive if convicted after a trial.

The way forward has been clear for many months. The government needed actively to seek out a large number of additional buildings so that capacity could be significantly increased and the backlog reduced without increasing the risk to others. The fact that this is still not happening is disturbing bearing in mind the consequences. If there had been due diligence, government would have recruited the extra staff needed many months ago and would already be using numerous civic centres across our jurisdiction as well as court martial facilities on army bases and immigration detention centres to ensure greater numbers of custody trials were going ahead. Instead, the only process contemplated is to cram as many cases and people as possible into very limited amounts of space through Extended Operating Hours. Nightingale courts are not only necessary for victims, witnesses and suspects; they are also essential for the bar, judiciary and court staff who are compelled to work in cramped working conditions on a daily basis and to put their lives at risk whilst Tier 2 and 3 restrictions operate outside.

Committees:

We need volunteers to join two new committees. These are:
(i) a Law Reform Committee. As experts in our field, we are aware of the changes needed in criminal law, evidence, procedure and sentencing and need to be proactive in securing them. We also need to respond in a co-ordinated way to government initiatives in this area;

(ii) a Technology Committee. The landscape of the courts has changed significantly over recent months. We need people who will engage with HMCTS and seek improvements in areas such as CVP and digital working throughout the criminal courts. Once again, we are looking for a diverse and national membership for both committees.

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