UK Bar Council calls for inquiry into backlogs of cases in criminal courts News
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UK Bar Council calls for inquiry into backlogs of cases in criminal courts

The UK Bar Council called for an inquiry into the backlog at the criminal courts, announcing in a press release on Thursday that it has provided written evidence in pursuit of the inquiry. The Bar Council is calling for a “whole system review through a Royal Commission” in order to reduce the “oppressive” backlog.

The council’s submission pertained to “progress addressing backlogs, workforce issues, impact on victims, witnesses and defendants, and oversight and planning across the courts systems.” The council explained that the courts were experiencing this backlog before the COVID-19 pandemic and that this was exacerbated to “crisis levels” during and after the pandemic. The submission also said that the backlog had an oppressive and serious impact on “victims, witnesses and defendants.” As of March 2024, this backlog is growing and has seen a 12% rise since the previous year. The submission stated, “If adjusted for case complexity, the Institute for Government estimates the backlog is more like 89,937 cases – well over twice (137%) the pre-Covid baseline.”

On May 15, the government enacted an emergency measure called Operation Early Dawn to deal with the demands of the rising prison population. Operation Early Dawn affects “the flow of prisoners from police cells” to magistrates courts, where high-risk prisoners are prioritized over others in order to mitigate the strain on prisoner transport services. However, lawyers have expressed concern that this will only result in more chaos to the backlogged courts.

UK Law Society President Nick Emmerson stated, “Victims, witnesses, defendants and lawyers will turn up only to find their cases have been delayed.” Emmerson added, “What is crystal clear is the prison spaces crisis is a consequence of the government’s approach to justice including over a decade of underfunding our criminal justice system, which also sees chronic shortages of judges and lawyers, huge backlogs of cases and crumbling courts.”

In its press release, Bar Council Chair Sam Townend KC stated:

Our submission shows that the existing criminal justice policy is now at a ‘dead end’ and a substantial change and investment are needed to reduce the backlog. The status quo has a detrimental impact on victims, attrition of witnesses, and innocent defendants are left for years languishing with the charges oppressively held over their heads… The operational measures recently adopted, such as Operation Early Dawn and 70-day early release show how changes can lead to adverse and unexpected consequences when dealing with such a complex system.

The Bar Council identified that while there is no one solution, there are the following areas of improvement that may mitigate the current situation: “early legal advice, early guilty pleas, prison transportation and interpretation services, the use of remote hearings, judicial recruitment, community resolution, scheduling and listing, recruitment and support for legal aid professionals, and targeting assistance to specific areas and court centers.”

Townend KC reiterated that “the criminal justice system can no longer operate in crisis mode, lurching from one emergency measure to another, week after week. Sticking plasters will not cut it, a wholesale policy refresh and investment in the whole justice system is needed now.”