Government's failure to have proper funding in place has caused court backlog, reveals leading North Yorkshire barrister, as delays reach highest level

A long-term lack of funding for the criminal justice system in England and Wales has led to a backlog of court cases, a leading North Yorkshire barrister has said, as figures reveal the number of people waiting for hearings has hit a record high.

John Elvidge QC.

John Elvidge QC, Head of Dere Street Chambers in York and a former Leader of the Bar on the North Eastern Circuit, has revealed delays in the criminal justice system have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, but believes investments to the legal system should have been made prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) revealed recently it plans to make virtual technology a permanent fixture of court hearings in the future, allowing lawyers, court staff, judges and the public to join some hearings remotely, with millions of pounds invested to deliver a "speedier justice for victims".

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Speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post, the criminal barrister said: "The pandemic has caused the Government to accelerate implementation of its digital platform to enable easier access to court, which is a positive thing.

"I would say the failure to have proper funding in place previously caused a backlog to develop. Had we had more court sitting days prior to March 2020, the backlog would not have been as bad as it is now.

"Understandably, the pandemic has made it worse. We were not able to conduct any trials for several months after the start of the first lockdown. In some areas we didn’t resume trials until the Autumn."

The proportion of criminal cases waiting more than a year to be dealt with by crown courts in England and Wales has "increased markedly" amid the pandemic, figures show.

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Out of 55,725 cases at the end of 2020, 9,421 had been waiting one to two years to be dealt with - the highest figure in records dating to 2014.

The "outstanding duration" for cases over two years, 866, is also a record for the series.

Out of 37,374 cases for the same period in 2019, there were 1,779 waiting one to two years and 433 waiting more than two years.

Mr Elvidge - whose practice includes homicide, fraud, organised crime, sexual exploitation and modern slavery - revealed the delays are having a detrimental impact on victims, witnesses and the defendants who are awaiting a hearing.

"For most defendants, it is an anxious time awaiting a trial anyway, but the added delay causes more pressure," he said.

"It is the same for the complainants and other interested parties. Delay really adds to their anxiety.

"Those on remand are also facing longer in prison as custody time limits have had to be extended. Coupled with that, we have seen outbreaks of the virus in the prison systems which in turn can cause further delays."

Earlier this month, the watchdog for the Crown Prosecution Service warned that the caseload for prosecutors is increasing at an "alarming rate" and could have "major consequences" for victims and witnesses.

Mr Elvidge explained to The Yorkshire Post how the amount of trials being heard on the North Eastern Circuit, which covers the whole of Yorkshire, Durham and Northumbria, is now "not far off normal".

"I understand that this circuit is hearing more trials than any other part of the country and people are working very hard to achieve this," he said.

"The court staff - from the ushers to the clerks - have been terrific during all of this. They have done a marvellous job of keeping things moving while working on the front line. Everyone has been really impressed by their efforts to provide a safe environment.

The MOJ has said more cases are being heard every week, millions of pounds have been invested to "deliver speedier justice for victims" and measures to tackle the problems are "already having an impact".

A spokesman said: "The vast majority of trials are listed within a year and courts are prioritising ones where safety is a concern, such as domestic abuse.

"But we accept that certain cases are taking too long, which is why we are spending £450 million to deliver speedier justice, along with record sums on victim support services."