Meeting court backlog target is beyond government control, Justice Secretary admits

Cutting the backlog of cases in courts is beyond the Government’s control, the Justice Secretary has admitted, as he announces a new Leeds courtroom to meet the “challenging” target to speed up waiting times for victims.

In an interview with The Yorkshire Post, Alex Chalk confirmed that ministers still plan to reduce the backlog of crown court cases to target levels despite numbers rising to record highs at the end of last year.

However, he noted that although the Government wants to reduce case numbers “as fast as possible” but knowing whether it will hit its own target for reducing the backlog of cases is “difficult to predict with absolute certainty” because “not everything is within the gift of the Ministry of Justice, or indeed any other party in the system”.

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The backlog of cases in the crown court in 2019 before the pandemic was around 39,000, with numbers spiralling to a record high of 66,547 at the end of September last year.

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk speaking during the Conservative Party annual conference.Justice Secretary Alex Chalk speaking during the Conservative Party annual conference.
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk speaking during the Conservative Party annual conference.

When asked if the Government still plans to reduce the backlog to 53,000 by March 2025, Mr Chalk said: “Well, look, it is still the target, but it's a very challenging target.

“We will pull on every lever we can to get to it, but it's also recognized that this isn't under the control of any one party.

“But what we can and will do is work passionately and determinedly to bring the numbers down and invest where it's required.”

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Labour last night accused the Government of “admitting they cannot meet their own low benchmark”.

The Justice Secretary yesterday announced that part of this investment will come through a multi-million pound investment in the combined court centre in West Gate in Leeds to make the city the “beating legal heart of the North.

The £6.2 million will boost the estate in the city to 53 court or hearing rooms within 250-yards, allowing for capacity to be used to tackle the mounting backlog of crown court cases.

It will see Business and Property Court work moved away from Leeds Crown Court in order to get justice more quickly for victims and defendants.

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This is part of a £220 million package of funding which will also see roof replacements for the court estate in Skipton and York, as well as heating and pipework in Sheffield and replacing lifts in Sheffield and Grimsby.

Underinvestment in the court estate, a backlog of cases from the pandemic, and the knock-on effect of industrial action by barristers last year have all seen victims wait months or years for their cases to be heard.

As of September last year there were 6,505 cases which have been waiting for two or more years, accounting for 10 per cent of the backlog.

Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said: “The Tories are openly admitting they cannot meet their own low benchmark – it’s hardly surprisingly after 14 years of failure.

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"Victims are being let down across the country as they face years of waiting to have their cases heard in the Crown court, with a record backlog.

"This isn’t just denying justice to victims, it’s an all-out failure to deliver a criminal justice system that works for the British people.

"Labour will accelerate the delivery of justice by increasing the number of prosecutors, and ensure we raise confidence in the criminal justice system."

Nick Emmerson, President of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: “There has been scant progress in tackling the huge Crown Court backlogs. At the end of last year, the number of open cases waiting to be dealt with stood at 65,248 – a long way off from the government’s target of reducing the caseload to 53,000 by March 2025.

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“Our underfunded and overwhelmed criminal justice system cannot meet the demand. Urgent investment across all parts of the criminal justice is required in order to fix this: a demand that was not met by the government even when recommended in their own independent review.

“Without immediate action, this target will be passed by and it is the public who will lose out as the wheels of justice grind ever slower.”

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