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Friday, Apr 19, 2024

‘Devastating’ toll of London’s court delays

‘Devastating’ toll of London’s court delays

Exclusive: London has quarter of UK cases backlog with trials collapsing and victims waiting for years
Victims, witnesses and defendants are waiting years for justice as London’s courts are weighed down by a quarter of the national criminal case backlog, new figures reveal.

The number of cases waiting to be heard has nearly doubled across England and Wales in the past four years, thanks to funding cutbacks, the pandemic and a feud between barristers and government over legal aid rates. In London, fresh data shows the capital’s crown courts are dealing with more than a quarter of the 60,898 backlog, compared with a 20 per cent share four years ago.

The average time between a crime happening and justice being served is now over a year — for the first time in a decade. Trials are being farmed out to courts in Winchester and Swansea in a bid to combat London’s backlog, while three Nightingale courts remain open to take on extra cases.

However, Kirsty Brimelow KC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, hit out at the “devastating waste of money” when trials cannot happen due to a lack of lawyers. “It is devastating to complainants, victims, witnesses, and defendants,” she said.

The impact on those caught up in the criminal justice system in London is clear to see on a daily basis, as judges make routine apologies for delays of a year or more, while barristers tell victims and defendants to prepare themselves for a long wait.

Snaresbrook crown court is a symbol of decline in criminal justice, where lawyers, judges, and staff work hard just to stop the crisis spinning out of control in a building that is crumbling.

The court has a backlog of 3,817 cases — more than all of Greater Manchester and almost twice the size of the backlog in Wales. This month, a woman was considering pulling out of a domestic abuse case against her ex-boyfriend, having first complained of being assaulted in October 2021. A trial cannot be held until December next year.

Along the corridor, jurors were picking over texts sent five years earlier in an alleged £20,000 money laundering plot which has only just come to trial.

The pattern of delay is now familiar. A 25-year-old east London man with learning difficulties is accused of the sexual abuse of a young girl, with allegations dating back to 2014.

Speed is of the essence so that memories do not fade even further, in a case that has been under investigation since early 2021. But when the clerk calls Snaresbrook’s list office, a trial slot cannot be found until February 2024.

“It’s inhumane to put victims through this,” says London’s victims commissioner Claire Waxman, urging the Government to provide long-term funding to “help get to grips with the out-of-control backlogs”.

According to the MoJ’s latest statistics, 29 per cent of criminal cases nationally have been live for more than a year — a new high — including 5,568 cases that have been open for over two years.

For rape cases in London, there is an average delay of 425 days between charge and a case concluding in the crown court, compared with 230 days in 2014. Nationally, there are now more than 2,000 rape cases waiting to be heard — a new record.

Snaresbrook is also emblematic of the physical decay of the justice system. Inside the Grade II listed Gothic former orphanage, which was built in the 1840s, paint peels off the walls, ceiling tiles are loose and broken lavatory appliances are taped off.

Swear words have been carved into court benches and never been repaired, while staff write out by hand the list of barristers — saddled with a computer system that has not worked for months.

Outside, scaffolding obscures the walls as workmen carry out the latest repairs on the roof, with the din of drilling disrupting proceedings, including the plea hearing of a 21-year-old Londoner accused of a stranger rape.

The alleged attack happened in April 2022 and barristers agree the case will be ready for trial by this summer, but hope quickly turns to disappointment when a July 15 trial date is offered. “This year?” asked the judge. “No, that’s next year, I’m afraid,” replies the clerk.

HM Courts and Tribunal Service has opened a series of Nightingale courts. It has also removed limits on sitting days and invested hundreds of millions of pounds. But in a system depleted by years of cutbacks, only a modest target of cutting the national backlog to 53,000 by 2025 can be set.

Figures show nearly 1,000 crown court trials in London had to be abandoned at the height of last year’s legal aid feud between barristers and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab. But data also reveals 184 trials in London — and 531 nationally — could not happen in 2022 because there was no available prosecutor or judge, highlighting a problem not related to the strike.

The Ministry of Justice said: “We are taking action to restore the swift access to justice victims deserve — including lifting the cap on the number of days courts can sit and opening six Nightingale crown courtrooms across London.”
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