More than 5,800 victims of violent crime and sex offenses are stuck in one of the worst backlogs ever in Crown courts, enduring delays of at least a year before their cases are heard, the Observer can reveal.
The number of cases facing such delays once a defendant has been charged has more than sevenfold in two years, according to an analysis of figures from crown courts in England and Wales.
Hundreds of lawyers have quit state-funded criminal work, complaining that legal aid fees are a “misery”.
The backlog in Crown Courts could now worsen as criminal barristers are voted on a possible strike later this month, which could include refusing further instructions and court walkouts.
The Observer found:
Crown court figures show that 5,849 violent crime and sex offense cases have been waiting for more than a year to come to trial, up from just 755 two years earlier. More than 1,000 victims have been waiting for at least two years.
Some of the courtrooms in Snaresbrook in east London, the largest Crown Court complex in England and Wales, were empty last week despite a backlog of 4,200 cases as it struggles with a shortage of judges.
Victim support groups warn that some witnesses who are told their case is postponed due to delays “don’t bother to come back”.
The anonymous author of The Secret Lawyer, which lays bare the flaws in the criminal justice system, said: ‘The government wants to paint this as a filthy dispute over lawyers’ pay – but it’s about much more. The reality is that the criminal legal profession is dying. My junior colleagues are struggling to earn minimum wage – an average income of £12,200 a year – and the cost of working 80 hour weeks in a broken system is unsustainable. The delay is built into every part of the system.
Jo Sidhu QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), said: “The evidence provided by the courts does not support the fantasy fed to the public by ministers that delays are starting to shrink. Every week, dozens of trials, including those for rape and other serious sexual offences, are postponed at the last moment.
Alex Mayes, from the charity Victim Support, said: ‘We have seen cases of victims where the emotional burden of the trial and the delays caused them to give up, or they went through the process and come out of it feeling that they would not want to do it again.
In evidence to a Commons Public Accounts Committee inquiry into criminal court backlogs released earlier this year, a witness care unit in Lincolnshire reported 185 cases with no set date for trial. A second county helpline warned, “The subsequent delays and adjournments, even when trials are put back on the agenda, show us that witnesses simply don’t bother to come back and [the Crown Prosecution Service] offers “no evidence”.
The backlog was growing before the pandemic and one of the main reasons is the reduction in the legal aid budget, which has fallen by 43% in real terms since 2004-2005. According to the ABC, the number of junior barristers practicing exclusively in crime has fallen by 11%, from 2,553 in 2016 to 2,273 in 2020. The number of criminal legal aid firms in England and in Wales has increased from 1,861 in 2010 to 1,090 in 2021.
John McNamara, a criminal lawyer who has largely stopped working on legal aid-funded cases due to low fees, said: “Lawyers vote with their feet and quit criminal work. There are not enough skilled workers to help clear the backlog.
Defense lawyers complain that fixed fees for advising defendants at police stations, including travel, correspondence and phone calls, have declined over the years. The police station’s fixed fee for attending a defense lawyer in Hartlepool was £131 in 2021, up from £144 in 2008. The fixed fee for preparing a two-day burglary trial is only from £353.
Hesham Puri, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said: “The system is broken. We have lawyers leaving and we cannot recruit new ones. When I started, you were getting about 100 resumes a month from lawyers and trainee lawyers. We don’t get any now.
Kelly Thomas, a partner at Brighton-based Tuckers Solicitors and a defense lawyer for over two decades, said: “I’ve seen some really good lawyers who just said, ‘I’ve had enough. We tell the rest of the world that we have this fantastic legal system, but it is disappearing.
The Ministry of Justice is working to reduce backlogs but is hampered by a shortage of judges and lawyers. At Snaresbrook Crown Court last Thursday, three of the 18 courts available were not sitting, despite staff dealing with the largest backlog of cases in the country.
There are often not enough judges to sit in the available courts, or lawyers may be engaged in other cases. The Crown Courts of Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Chelmsford all have a backlog of over 1,000 cases.
The total number of cases waiting to be heard in Crown Court has risen from around 39,000 at the start of 2020, before the pandemic, to more than 58,000, an increase of almost 50%.
A ballot for a lawyers’ strike over legal aid fees closes tonight and, if there is support for action, there could be walkouts from next Monday. The ABC says the action aims to address the lack of criminal lawyers to help deal with the crisis in court. Ministers agreed pay rises after an independent review by former judge Sir Christopher Bellamy, but lawyers say they need an immediate pay rise.
Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, last week announced a new pilot program for specialist rape trial courts to reduce backlogs. Some rape victims wait five years between a reported offense and a conviction.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the backlog of cases in Crown Courts had fallen by 3% over the past year: “It is thanks to our decisive action and hard work legal professionals, including criminal barristers, who, as a result of our proposals, will earn almost an additional £7,000 a year. This is a significant pay raise, and we encourage the CBA to work with us, rather than continue or escalate unnecessary disruptions in the courts, which will only delay justice for victims.