An eminent criminal solicitor recently tweeted a story of a client, born in 2001, who had allegedly committed a crime at the age of 16. It took two years, on becoming an adult in 2018, for his trial to be sent to the Crown Court. It has taken a further two years for the trial to be listed, and it is expected to be heard in April 2021.
The offence – of which he strongly denies guilt – will have taken four years to be dealt with by our justice system, spanning this young man’s GCSEs, A-Levels and part of his university degree. The old adage that we are innocent until proven guilty cannot be said to be in operation when proceedings are hanging over your head, potentially with restrictions in place and so much uncertainty for the future, during critical formative years.
This anecdote was told as a response to four criminal justice watchdogs warning they have “grave concerns” about the impact of court backlogs. Figures revealed there are now 54,000 unheard cases, with a further 457,000 cases in the magistrates’ courts – eye-watering figures for a creaking criminal justice system. The backlog, a long-standing problem due to a severe lack of investment exacerbated by the pandemic, is a problem for us all.
As Justin Russell, the Chief Inspector of Probation, said: “Delays mean victims must wait longer for cases to be heard. Some will withdraw support for prosecutions because they have lost faith in the process. Witnesses will find it difficult to recall events that took place many months ago, and prosecutors waste significant periods of time preparing for cases that did not go ahead.” Justice delayed is justice denied.
Two recent cases show the risk that delay causes for the public. At the end of last year, a man who used indecent images of children online while posing as a teenage girl avoided a jail sentence due to a three-year delay in his case. The sentencing judge said: “The reality is if it had been before the court 18 months ago, or two years ago, at that stage you would have been locked up.” The case was referred to the Chief Crown Prosecutor because of the delay, with the judge commenting that “this is another case that needs referring to try and understand what is going wrong”.
In another case in Canterbury, a man who had been found to be hoarding images of children of “unspeakable depravity” also swerved a prison sentence due to delays in the system. The relevant judge was furious, stating that in these specific circumstances it was “impossible to do justice” five years after the offence and the whole system “is not working”. They said:
“It is a systematic failing, and the point is that nobody will do anything about it because nobody is responsible for the system, but it’s a systematic failing on the part of the prosecution. As far as a defendant and public is concerned, it is an outrageous negligence.”
This case illustrates that the problem is not merely courts and delays in bringing cases to court, but underfunding across the system. The Crown Prosecution Service has had its budget cut by around 25% since 2010. It is worth remembering these figures, and these two cases, when Priti Patel or Boris Johnson next argue their government is “tough on crime”.
This week, David Lammy as Shadow Justice Secretary asked an urgent question regarding the backlog of criminal cases in the justice system. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Robert Buckland, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, did not turn up to the chamber.
Lammy rightly pointed out that the backlog, whilst compounded by the pandemic, is the result of decisions by the Conservative government, which has closed courts and cut funding over the past decade and belatedly set up expensive ‘Nightingale’ pop-up courts to mitigate the disaster. In 2016, it was a Tory government that announced the closure of 127 courts and tribunals centres. Lammy highlighted the absurdity of the situation and the false economy of court closures, saying:
“Before the pandemic, the backlog stood at 39,000 cases. That figure was the result of sustained attacks on the justice system by successive Conservative governments: an entire decade of court closures, cuts and reduced sitting days. Blackfriars Crown court was sold off by the government in December 2019. It is now sitting empty, but it is being rented out as a film set by the developer for a new series of ‘Top Boy’. Meanwhile the government are paying through the nose for Nightingale courts a stone’s throw away.”
The focus has been on criminal cases, but the effect of delay is being seen across the justice system. In family cases, for example, parents are being forced to wait months for a court hearing to deal with contact arrangements, meaning children being alienated from a parent for longer. In care cases, it is taking longer to conclude proceedings (despite statutory provision for cases to be concluded within 26 weeks) meaning children face further uncertainty and social workers, already overstretched, holding on to cases for longer whilst the level of new cases are increasing all the time.
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed weaknesses in our public realm as a result of a decade of Tory cuts and incompetence. In the justice system, this is leading to miscarriages of justice and is increasing the risk to the public. They should be ashamed.