Breaking Point: Growing Backlog of Court Cases in UK

By Tan Wei Heng

crown court
Source: https://www.ft.com/content/3bdabc0d-782f-45d0-892f-93fdf700a99d

Overview of Problem

One particular community disproportionately affected are women. Despite the belief that “justice delayed is justice denied”, ‘non-priority’ cases backlogged in the Crown courts have extended into 2023-2024.[1] At one point, the number of cases even reached a record number of 60,000, an increase of nearly 45% from the previous year.[2] As the backlog would likely last beyond 2024, witnesses, victims and defendants are left waiting for justice.


Problematically, the Ministry of Justice estimated an additional £500 million, on top of a further £1.7 billion for legal aid, prisons and probation services, in funding to reduce the backlog below 50,000. In an already under-funded justice system, the growing problem would only weaken the rule of law and the trust in the judicial system.


Problematically, the Ministry of Justice estimated that an additional £500 million, on top of a further £1.7 billion for legal aid, prisons and probation services, in funding to reduce the backlog below 50,000.[3] In an already under-funded justice system, the growing problem would only weaken the rule of law and the trust in the judicial system.


Significance

The issue is exacerbated by the significant cuts to legal aid which has reduced the availability of publicly funded barristers. As a result of the shortage of barristers, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of appellants self-representing in court, hampering the access to justice for many. This has the effect of prolonging judicial proceedings and even cases of unjust decisions.[4] As the legal cuts have led many chambers and barristers to stray away from the criminal practice, many cases would have to be delayed as parties struggle to find representation.


The backlog also means that witnesses might withdraw support as they lose faith in the process. Those accused would also face delays in defending themselves, leading to a longer time spent in remand.


Potential Solutions

Conversely, the Magistrates Courts do not face the same problem. As such, one possible solution would be to reduce the number of cases that go to the crown courts. In addition, expanding the use of remote proceedings for administrative hearings can help free up courtrooms for trials and reduce delays in the short term.



[1] Bev Higgs, ‘Backlog of crown court cases denies women justice’, (The Guardian, 7 October 2921) <https://www.theguardian.com/law/2021/oct/07/backlog-of-crown-court-cases-denies-women-justice> accessed 11 December 2021

[2] Lizzie Dearden, ‘Crown court backlog hits record high of 60,000 cases as victims wait years for justice’, (Independent, 24 June 2021) <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/crown-court-backlog-coronavirus-cuts-b1872051.html> accessed 11 December 2021

[3] Jane Croft, ‘UK criminal court case backlog set to last ‘several years’’, (Financial Times, 22 October 2021) <https://www.ft.com/content/3bdabc0d-782f-45d0-892f-93fdf700a99d> accessed 11 December 2021

[4] Dominic Glover, ‘Funding cuts and court backlogs push UK legal aid sector to breaking point’, (Courthouse News Service, 27 November 2021) <https://www.courthousenews.com/funding-cuts-and-court-backlogs-push-uk-legal-aid-sector-to-breaking-point/> accessed 12 December 2021