Massive backlog of more than 900 cases awaiting trial at crown court

St Albans Crown Court. Picture: DANNY LOO

St Albans Crown Court. Picture: DANNY LOO - Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO

Between 900 and 1,000 cases are still waiting to be heard at the county's only crown court due to delays caused by the pandemic.

The backlog was been highlighted at a meeting of the county’s Criminal Justice Board, which said many of the county’s magistrates and crown courts had to close in line with COVID-19 restrictions during the past year.

The time between criminal charges being made and ‘finalisation’ is said to be around 427 days in St Albans Crown Court – 95 days longer than the national average.

At the virtual meeting of the Criminal Justice Board on Wednesday, Malcolm McHaffie, chief crown prosecutor for CPS Thames and Chiltern, highlighted the backlog at the court – compared to other areas of the country.

He said this was partly because of the number of cases already waiting in the run-up to the pandemic.

And he also pointed to ‘timeliness’ of the process and the number of defendants who maintained a ‘not guilty’ for longer,  maybe until the day of the trial.

He said the size and ‘nature’ of the crown court in St Albans meant that it had taken longer for jury trials to be allowed to resume, than in other areas.

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But he also pointed to signs that the backlog of cases was starting to reduce – with more cases now being finalised each week than were coming in.

He said he thought they were now ‘topping the hill’ – and pointed to possible measures in the coming months such as a ‘trial blitz’, where a higher number of short cases could be listed on the same day.

Meanwhile Daniel Flury, from HM Courts and Tribunal Service, also highlighted the physical layout of the crown court in St Albans that meant that it had been among the last of the courts to restart.

And nationally he said there was a ‘mountain to climb to get back to a level of acceptable performance right across the criminal justice system’.

He said the primary challenge was the need to recruit more judiciary. But he also pointed to the other challenges, including that associated with trials of defendants who were in custody.

That’s because of the impact continuing COVID-19 restrictions in prisons are having within the courts.

“Previously we would double-up our cells so that we would put two people into a single cell,” he said.

“Under the current restrictions we can only put one person – and that really is limiting our ability to list custody trials.

“And what we are finding – it’s the same in St Albans as nationwide – is that we have all these bottlenecks and bulges all over.

“And trying to tackle them in a way that allows us to maximise output is a real challenge for us.”

Mr Fury also highlighted the importance of early guilty pleas in the process.

He suggested that improving the ‘timeliness’ of the courts process would have a knock-on effect on how quickly defendants entered a guilty plea.

He suggested that when a defendant felt the trial was up to two years away there was very little incentive to engage with the process and enter a guilty plea.

But he said increasing timeliness and reducing delay in the crown and magistrates courts would itself play a part in driving up early guilty pleas, as the urgency and the immediacy of trial comes closer and closer.

Hertfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner David Lloyd told the board there had been ‘unprecedented challenges’ for the criminal justice system.

He welcomed the ‘greater positivity’ expressed at the meeting in relation to the court processes in the wake of the pandemic.

And he said: “We all agree justice delayed is justice denied and we all need to get through this.”

At the meeting Malcolm McHaffie, chief crown prosecutor for CPS Thames and Chiltern, also highlighted the large number of defendants in the magistrates’ court system not attending their first hearing.

As a consequence, he said there would have to be an adjournment or a warrant issued – leading to ‘wasted’ court time and to the police, in trying to track them down.

He highlighted a pilot – launched before the pandemic, in which defendants had been texted a reminder the day before their hearing  – which, he said, had been showing some positive results.