Is Lancashire's backlog of delayed court cases failing the public as it hits more than 14,000?
The huge number of outstanding cases in Lancashire’s criminal courts has triggered concern as frustrated judges are being forced to set criminal trial dates as far ahead as 2022.
Victims of crime are having to wait up to three years for offenders to be dealt with as the length of time it takes to bring a defendant to justice soars.
The latest figures at the end of September revealed there were 12,945 outstanding court cases in the area’s magistrates courts by the end of September in the Lancashire Local Criminal Justice Board (LCJB) area, with 1,249 more at the crown courts.
The criminal justice system was already suffering delays to court proceedings before the Covid pandemic hit.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) data shows most at the end of last year, there were 6,829 magistrates cases outstanding in the county - 6,013 of them motoring matters - and 960 outstanding crown court cases.
Of those, 311 related to violent offences, with 155 more relating to sex crimes.
While it is normal to have a number outstanding or unresolved cases at any time, over the years this has grown.
HMCTS has pointed out that in Lancashire, the number of outstanding cases at the magistrates’ last year, before Covid, was much actually much lower than in previous years, but it crept up again when the pandemic hit.
The organisation stresses extensive efforts are being made to tackle the issue and are already having an impact locally.
In February it had announced an increase in Crown Court sitting days nationally, and the national backlog in Crown Court trials fell by more than a fifth from 47,000 to 37,000 nationally at the end of 2019.
A joint recovery plan is in place with the local Criminal Justice Board, a body made up of senior members from organisations that make up our criminal justice system.
The Board is responsible for ensuring an effective local response to political and legislative changes amongst other things.
Furthermore, it is understood the number of outstanding magistrates cases in Lancashire has started to fall since September’s figures.
A HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesperson said: “The number of outstanding cases in Lancashire’s magistrates’ courts are falling rapidly thanks to our extensive efforts to limit the impact of the pandemic.
“Crown courts are listing more jury trials every week and we’re spending £80m on a range of measures to further drive this recovery including the recruitment of 1,600 additional staff.”
In Lancashire, crown courts have recently increased their courtroom capacity for holding criminal trials from one to four, with a fifth court expected to be added by the end of November.
In addition it is hoped part of the backlog will be tackled by the introduction of 16 ‘Nightingale’ courts, including venues at Fleetwood and Lancaster, which will enabling 29 more courtrooms to be used nationally.
There are concerns about how the new courts will be staffed, but in a response, HMCTS said they would be staffed by existing court staff and an additional 1,600 workers being recruited.
But there are still significant challenges ahead.
The criminal justice system is complex, with many different agencies playing a role - so a problem with one area leads to a knock on effect in another.
A combination of factors are being blamed for the delays, such as chronic underfunding of the justice system, historical cuts across organisations such as the police, and delays in obtaining or dealing with the disclosure of digital evidence like phones or computer cyber data.
In addition, changes to police bail rules, which place a 28-day time limit on the length of time a suspect can be on bail for, have led to a heavier use of postal requisitions - previously known as a summons - to attend court instead of charging offenders.
Before the 2017 Act, if police wanted to continue an investigation against a suspect they could no longer detain without charge, they essentially had to release them with bail.
The changes sought to strike a balance between the need for police to manage investigations and not leaving a person suspected of a crime on bail for an unacceptably long period.
This means releasing suspects ‘under investigation’ is now routine practice and gives police and CPS more time to work on a case.
But there are strict criteria and timescales to be met before a postal requisition can be sent to a defendant, and critics say there is less incentive to work quickly to bring charges.
Lancashire Police previously declined to comment on the issue.
Parliament announced a review of police bail in January after fears were raised it was causing unintended consequences, with suspects still left with uncertainty for long periods of time.
Coupled with this, prosecutors aren’t always making swift decisions in cases handed to them by police, according to a recent review of the CPS.
This complicated background has been compounded further still by challenges posed by the pandemic, from delays caused by people having to isolate, to social distancing guidance and the resulting need for more space in court, which has meant a reduction in the courts’ capacity.
Preston Crown Court, which has nine criminal courtrooms, is currently using two of those to facilitate a Blackpool murder trial.
Overall, the effects of the backlog are increasingly profound for victims, defendants, legal workers and the judiciary.
Lord Burnett, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, praised the response to the pandemic last week, but said a concerted effort was needed to make progress in dealing with what were “unsustainable backlogs”.
He said “Whilst there have been significant achievements during the COVID emergency, I do not underestimate the difficulty in recovering the system to the position pre-COVID still less, in all jurisdictions, to achieve a better position, which is the aim of the judiciary.”
How are the courts adapting?
The courts and their staff have had to adapt quickly to the Covid crisis.
Nationally some are operating extended and weekend hours to cope with the backlog.
Across the country 500 individual screens – 4,000m2 of plexiglass – have been installed across around 380 courtrooms and jury deliberation rooms in line with PHE guidance so trials can continue, including Preston Crown Court.
Many courtrooms in Lancashire have facilities to conduct hearings remotely over a video system, if it is deemed in the interests of justice to do so.
Telephone conferencing facilities and online video platforms to allow people involved in court cases to join hearings remotely have been rolled out.
Staff are battling daily to continue to administration of justice, but hearings are commonly plagued by frustrating technical issues that add further to the delays.
To address the backlog, around 16 ‘Nightingale’ courts, including venues at Fleetwood and Lancaster, will be introduced, enabling 29 more courtrooms to be used nationally.
Concerns criminals benefit from delays
One law firm published guidance on its website saying it could “ deploy several legal principles in an attempt to mitigate the sentence passed”.
It said: “On occasion, this can work in our client’s favour, either reducing the length of the overall sentence, allowing a custodial sentence to be suspended where it would not otherwise be, or by justifying a non-custodial sentence in circumstances where custody would be the norm.”
Preston Judge Simon Newell, who recently sentenced three men over a violent attack two years ago, said such delays “made a mockery” of the system.
In his remarks he said: “It is impossible to justify a two year delay, to the witness, witnesses and to young people such as yourselves who, whatever their crime, should be treated, in a sophisticated society, quickly, speedily and justly.
“Delays such as this cannot lead to a just result for anybody and brings the criminal justice system into disrepute.”
His concerns were echoed by Judge Philip Parry, who recently demanded an explanation from prosecutors over why it took seven months to charge a girl over a park stabbing, despite her admissions in interview.
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