Coronavirus has had a ‘devastating’ impact on courts and the effect of virtual hearings is still ‘fundamentally unclear’, an influential Lords committee has found.
In a comprehensive report published today, the House of Lords constitution committee said the backlog in the criminal courts has reached ‘crisis levels’ and the quality of justice is ‘increasingly at risk’ as witness memories fade over time.
It urged the government to provide enough funding to ensure that all cases in the Crown court are tried within one year of the plea and trial preparation hearing. It also backed plans to pilot remote jury trials as a further means of reducing the backlog.
On technology, the committee said a ‘paucity of data collection’ is undermining transparency and making it difficult to assess the impact of remote hearings on vulnerable court users, including whether technology is affecting case outcomes.
The committee concluded that the backlog in the criminal courts is ‘neither acceptable nor inevitable’ and instead results from ‘years of underinvestment’. Latest figures from HMCTS, covering the period up to the end of February, show a Crown court backlog of 56,875 cases, with 476,932 outstanding cases in the magistrates’ court.
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, said: ‘The criminal court backlogs mean that justice is being delayed for victims, witnesses and defendants, who have proceedings hanging over them for months, if not years, with some trials now listed for 2023.