Criminal courts

Summarising the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, the barrister strikes of 2022 and record case backlogs on criminal courts.

Key figures

  • £2.3bn – the amount spent on HM Courts and Tribunals Service in 2022/23 – 8.6% lower than 2021/22.
  • 64,709 – the size of the crown court backlog in June 2023 – compared to 40,826 in March 2020, making it the highest figure ever recorded.
  • 28.3% – the proportion of all cases that have been waiting in the crown court system for more than a year – compared to 7.2% in March 2020.
  • 17.5% – the average proportion of ‘ineffective trials’ in the magistrates court since September 2020 – 4.2% percentage points higher than the average ineffectiveness rate between 2010 and 2020.
  • 41% – the size of the real-terms decline in criminal legal aid spending since 2011/12.

Delayed cases and record backlogs

Criminal courts have been severely impacted by both Covid and last year’s barrister strikes, but they have also become less efficient and are struggling to return to pre-pandemic performance levels. The courts system is being hampered by record backlogs, which in the crown court is now 132% larger than in 2019/20, with over six times as many cases taking more than a year to be heard. As a result, victims are experiencing a poorer quality of justice, while defendants are spending longer on remand.

Reduced spending due to high inflation

Real terms spending on courts in England and Wales increased by 20% between 2017/18 and 2021/22, before falling by 10% in 2022/23. Under the 2021 spending review, all courts were scheduled to receive increases of 4% each year to 2024/25, but higher than expected inflation means that spending is scheduled to fall by 2% in real terms between 2022/23 and 2024/25.

Trial ineffectiveness

With the number of cases processed by courts still not surpassing pre-pandemic levels, the system is operating less efficiently than in the past. An increase in trial ineffectiveness, where a case fails to be heard on the day and is rescheduled, a declining estate, technology issues and less productive use of trial time, or sitting days, are all contributing to this reduced efficiency. The growth of ineffective trials, in particular, is one of the most concerning trends as it means court space is going unused. Since September 2020 the average proportion of ineffective trials in magistrate courts has risen to 17.6% per quarter, compared to 13.3% across the previous decade. In the crown court, between 2021/22 and 2022/23 the quarterly average reached 18.6%, up from 10% between 2010 and 2019. And while sitting days have grown to 102,600 in 2022 after years of government reductions, the amount of time spent hearing cases has fallen. In 2019 the average was 3.5 hours, in 2022 it was down to 2.8 hours.

These factors have contributed to a record backlog in crown court cases, which hit a high of 62,764 in September 2022.

A huge backlog in cases

Unlike magistrates’ courts, which have reduced backlogs by 19.4%, marginal progress (0.8% between September 2022 and March 2023) has been made with criminal courts, meaning the government will miss its 2025 reduction target by over six years. But the composition of the backlog, with more complex cases including a 61% increase in sexual offences since 2018/19, means the current backlog is actually 132% larger than pre-pandemic. This is leading to the longest waiting times on record with the proportion of cases taking over a year to be heard increasing from 7.2% in 2020 to 28.8% in 2023. This results in victims receiving a poorer quality of justice. The former victims commissioner has warned that “justice delayed is justice denied”.

A dissatisfied workforce 

Courts are also hampered by an increasingly dissatisfied workforce. The number of full-time criminal barristers has declined by 10% between 2019 and 2021. Despite an increase in pay rates to end industrial action last year, the service is still experiencing capacity problems. The number of magistrates has fallen by 53.6% between 2020/21 and 2010/11 and a recent recruitment round for circuit and district judges was unable to fill 84% of advertised vacancies.