‘Very many Crown court rooms are simply not sitting for any criminal hearing at all,’ says UK CBA

With high volumes of trials being vacated, courts remain bogged down with massive backlogs

‘Very many Crown court rooms are simply not sitting for any criminal hearing at all,’ says UK CBA

“Very many Crown court rooms are simply not sitting for any criminal hearing at all,” said the Criminal Bar Association of England and Wales (CBA) in a statement contradicting the government’s claim that almost all court buildings are operating again.

According to the Law Society Gazette, a spokesman for Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service had announced this month that 90% of court buildings had reopened, urgent matters were receiving priority attention and the number of remote hearings being held was on the rise. Moreover, significant funding was being deployed to buildings and technology to “keep justice going.”

However, CBA chair Caroline Goodwin QC said that despite promises of additional “Nightingale” courts, only three of 10 Nightingale buildings were focused on criminal hearings.

“Until the end of last week, the biggest new criminal court building, Prospero House in London, was being paid to sit one third idle with only two of the three court rooms sitting at all,” she said.

Ministry of Justice data indicated that from 5 July to the end of July, 1,947 Crown trials were vacated. The average number of trials vacated per week in this period was approximately 487.

At present, the backlog in the magistrates and Crown courts totals over 560,000; as of 26 July, there were 43,676 pending Crown court cases.

“Faced with this multiple pile-up of a growing Crown court trials backlog, the government has the audacity to repeat at best a highly misleading mantra, at worst an insult, that for the past few weeks 90% of Court buildings are open when the reality for court users is that two thirds of the court rooms in the existing Crown court buildings remain unused,” Goodwin said.

She added that a minimum of 50 extra criminal courtrooms were necessary to tackle the backlog.

Simon Davis, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said that the criminal justice system in the UK had already been staggering under heavy backlogs even before COVID-19 as a result of “years of underfunding and cuts.”

“We believe the government can build court capacity—without resorting to extended hours—by utilising unused public buildings as Nightingale courts, making maximum use of normal court hours and the existing court estate, and avoiding any restrictions on judges sitting while there are court rooms (real, virtual or Nightingale) available,” he said. “Investing in legal aid for early advice and legal representation will ensure judicial time is used as efficiently as possible in cases which do go to court.”

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