Why are English courts sitting idle?

Criminal cases brought to trial have plunged to record lows despite rising crime

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Around a third of crown courts in England and Wales are sitting idle as the number of criminal cases being brought to trial has plummeted despite rising crime and a growing backlog.

Overall, the number of criminal trials has dropped to a record low, with almost 67,000 fewer held in 2018 than in 2008. Official figures released last month also show prosecutions plummeting for all types of crime, to just 7.4% of the offences reported to police – a fall of 41,700 in a year.

According to The Daily Telegraph, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has cut the number of days on which it will fund judges to sit by more than 15% over the last year, resulting in between 25% and 40% of courts sitting empty on any one day “as police forces solve fewer cases and crown prosecutors bring fewer to trial”.

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The figures are even more stark in London, where just five of the 18 courts at the Old Bailey, Britain’s principle murder court, sat on Thursday despite the record homicide rate in the capital.

The Telegraph says the “controversy is compounded by a decision by the MoJ not to pay for opening up the spare court capacity” to reduce a backlog of more than 30,000 crown court cases and 288,000 in the magistrates.

Attacked as a cost-saving measure and to avoid increasing overcrowding on an already strained prison system, this has resulted in a two-tier justice system where serious cases are fast-tracked while others take more than two years to come to trial.

The Guardian reports that “since 2010 more than half of all magistrates courts in England and Wales have stopped hearing cases, forcing defendants, witnesses, police, lawyers and justices of the peace to travel more than 50 miles in some cases to access local justice”.

FDA union national officer Steven Littlewood, who represents Crown Prosecution Service workers, told The Independent in November that the justice system “will break down” and allow crimes to go unpunished if the government does not provide hundreds of millions of pounds in investment.

It comes amid concerns Boris Johnson’s promise of tougher sentences and 20,000 extra police on the streets could have a knock-on effect that overwhelms the already under-funded justice system.

A report from parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has warned that “given the operational and financial pressure that court, prison and probation services are already under, it is far from certain the Ministry of Justice will have the capacity and capability to cope with a significant rise in demand”.

“The government has a track record of changing one element of a system without fully recognising the consequences for the rest of the system, or across other government departments,” it added.

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