At least 15 crown court trials, some involving offences against children, have been delayed until 2023 as court officials fight a losing battle with a growing backlog of cases.
Specialist barristers fear that criminals are avoiding justice and victims are dropping cases as trials are delayed for more than two years in an underfunded system struggling to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Fears are especially acute regarding allegations of child abuse with the memories of young witnesses likely to fade the longer trials are delayed.
Ministry of Justice officials have acknowledged that 15 cases involving serious criminal charges will have to wait at least two years to come before a jury.
Criminal law specialists have told The Times that the number of trials pushed into 2023 is likely to be higher.
The justice secretary, Robert Buckland QC, told MPs in December that no cases were listed that far in advance.
The cases listed for crown court trials in 2023 include allegations of sexual exploitation and grooming in the north of England and a domestic violence case at Maidstone crown court. That court is particularly badly affected. Another case at Maidstone, relating to drug and other offences alleged to have been committed in 2019, has been provisionally set for trial in March 2023.
The first available date to hear a money laundering trial, estimated to last for three days, is February 2023, but the case has been put in a reserve warned list in April 2023.
The trial of a 20-year-old charged with supplying drugs, who claims to be the victim of modern slavery and has no previous convictions, will not take place until 2023.
A fourth case at Maidstone — a two-day burglary trial — has been given a provisional trial date in February 2023, and a four-day drugs case at the same court is provisionally scheduled for March 2023.
Senior criminal barristers have said that the number of trials delayed for more than two years could be significantly higher as many cases are repeatedly being put in provisional or “warned” lists in the hope that other cases might fall way when the reality is that they will not be heard until 2024.
The Times has been told that court listing officers are reluctant to schedule trial dates for 2023 or 2024 because of pressure from officials.
Last December, Buckland told MPs on the Commons justice committee that the delays in the crown court were not as bad as some lawyers claimed, and that no trials had been listed for 2023. He accepted that there was “an increasing risk” that trial listings would go into 2023, but said he hoped that the courts would “turn a corner” in 2021 following extra money from the Treasury to help reduce the growing backlog.
A ministry spokesman said that Buckland had given MPs the best assessment of the situation available to him at the time.
Before the pandemic the backlog of cases in the crown court was about 39,000. It is now more than 55,000.
In an attempt to increase the number of jury trials that can be heard in a safe and social-distanced way, the Ministry of Justice has hired 25 “Nightingale” courts, installed plexiglass dividers in jury boxes at 450 existing courtrooms and provided temporary buildings at 14 courts to create safe areas for jurors to deliberate.
Despite these efforts, the latest figures reveal that the number of trials completed is falling.
Before the pandemic, around 200 trials were being concluded each week. After the courts reopened after the first lockdown, the number of weekly trials rose to around 180 — but in the last week of January the number had fallen to 115.
James Mulholland QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, warned that delays of two years or more to jury trials were damaging. “It leaves psychological scarring,” he said, adding: “No one is able to gain closure until the proceedings are concluded.”
Mulholland said that other consequences included “people walking away from the criminal process and there are many who have done so. Not only do they walk away, those who remain have problems with memory and therefore the whole delay scenario impacts on the crown court structure in terms of reliability and credibility of structure”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said that “the vast majority of trials are listed in the next year and these few cases are not representative”.
“Judges may decide to list cases far in advance for various reasons, such as the need for further evidence gathering and so related trials can conclude first.”
He added that the government was investing £110 million “to boost capacity and ensure that trials can be heard as quickly as possible during the pandemic”.
This article first appeared in The Times