The Criminal Justice System is Broken


Just what is going on in our courts?

On twitter this week, I stumbled across a great site for those of us interested in true crime: ‘Court Stats’. One of the stats it shows is the number of Crown Court Rooms in England & Wales not sitting on any given day. Like me, I imagine you expect most all courts to be sitting every day, right? Wrong!

I was so shocked by the numbers – on 14 April 25% of courts weren’t sitting, on the 18 April it was 15% – and these numbers are pretty typical.

Unacceptable Delays

How can this be right when there is a backlog of over 60,000 cases and justice is taking longer than ever? In February this year, The Law Society of England and Wales warned that Crown court cases outstanding for more than two years had spiked to 4,893 – a 69% increase and the highest recorded number waiting this long since reporting started in 2014.

So we have a growing backlog of cases post-pandemic and following the Barrister strike, and yet a large percentage of courts aren’t sitting every day, meaning the delays are just going to drag on. This isn’t fair on the victims of crime whose lives are often on hold as they go through the process, and has a major effect on witnesses where numerous studies show how memories fade over time.

Locked Up Without Trial

Then there are the accused, awaiting trial often when remanded in custody. Like 36 year old Voja Petkovic, who was arrested in January 2019 and remains on remand in Leicester prison despite not having been convicted of any of the charges. He is not due to in court until April 2023, and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are planning delay the case further until 8 May 2023 owing to a backlog.

His wife Sonia said:

“If we’d been to trial and got whatever result – whether guilty or not guilty – we would know what we were working towards and could understand and process that,”.

“I feel like everybody – me, him, his family, my family – we’re all just being punished.

“Our daughter just thinks the normality is going to see her father at the weekend and give him a hug at the end of a visit.

“What this feels like is a nightmare that I’ve just never been able to wake up from.”

On Remand Doesn’t Mean Guilty

The latest figures – revealed by Freedom of Information requests –  show that 1,777 people have been held on remand for longer than a year, and more than 533 people have been on remand for longer than two years. And in 2021, more than one in five people (21%) were not sent to prison after being held on remand, and one in 10 people held on remand were subsequently acquitted at trial.  

Griff Ferris, a senior legal and policy officer at the campaign group Fair Trials, commented: “There’s no justice in a system that imprisons people awaiting trial for months and years.”

Can it be Fixed?

So how does the legal system get back on track?

Lubna Shuja of the Law Society thinks yes, but it is not going to be easy:

“Investment is needed across all areas of the criminal justice system to ensure progress is made on reducing the backlogs, so victims and defendants no longer face such long waits for justice. 1.35 million people were dealt with by the criminal justice system last year. Access to justice is vital to maintaining public safety and a fair society. 

Our recently published five-point plan to help tackle the backlog identifies where investment is needed, including in the crumbling court buildings and the judges, lawyers and staff who work in them. A starting point would be to increase criminal defence rates by the minimum 15% recommended by the independent review of criminal legal aid, which the government chose to ignore.”

The government line, despite all signs to the contrary, is that the situation is improving. In February this year the Justice Department told us the following:

“A total of 24 temporary courtrooms, which were set up to boost capacity during the pandemic, will remain open in 2023 to allow more cases to be heard. The government is investing £477 million over next three years to tackle the Crown Court backlog which significantly increased because of the pandemic. This includes allowing courts to run at full capacity, doubling the sentencing powers of Magistrates, and recruiting even more judges. The number of cases in the backlog fell by almost 800 cases in the last 2 months of 2022, after barristers ended strike action”.

Moving Forward

It is, of course, good news that more money is being invested, but is it anywhere near enough?

And with the system creaking so badly, why are so many courts closed daily? What is the point of the Nightingale courts if other courts are shut for business?

With the current justice system failing everyone involved, surely it is time to accept is it time for more innovative and radical changes to a failing system. How is technology being used? Should more courts be virtual?

It is clear that a tipping point has been reached and just tweaking around the edges is no longer enough.


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