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Backlog of court cases only going to get worse, warns solicitor

Crime | Published:

The impact of using new technology in the courts to clear a backlog of cases caused by the pandemic needs to be properly assessed for how it impacts on access to justice, a group of MPs have said.

Telford County Court

A new report by the Commons Justice Select Committee said the pandemic had caused the large backlog of court cases to grow even more, in both crown and magistrates’ courts, to more than 450,000.

Efforts are being made to clear the backlog, including the introduction of a ‘Nightingale Court’ for the West Midlands at Telford’s former county court.

But those within the judicial system are concerned about the impact of delays.

Shropshire solicitor advocate Adrian Roberts, of Lanyon Bowdler, has been representing defendants at courts across the region, including Shrewsbury and Telford. He said: “The backlog of cases is massive at the moment and is only going to get worse because the courts cannot clear them. Telford Magistrates Court is moving from one to two rooms running next week. It’s only been using one courtroom for domestic abuse trials or new remand cases. We are just starting to see some sentencing work coming through.

“Defendants, complainants, witnesses are all struggling to come to terms with the unusual circumstances they have found themselves in. Some defendants don’t mind as it means they will have bit a longer in the community, but others are adamant that they are innocent and want their day in court.

He added there was talk of initiatives to tackle the crisis including extending the court day and even operating on Saturdays, which would impact on all staff in the criminal justice system. The high profile cases to put back include the trial of a police officer accused of the murder of former Villa star Dalian Atkinson, in Telford. Pc Benjamin Monk was due to stand trial in September, but the provisional date is now April 12, 2021.

The court heard Mr Atkinson’s relatives supported relisting the trial, “having been appraised of the difficulties and risks in trying to maintain a trial fixture in September due to the impact of Covid-19 measures”. Last week the Star revealed less than one in 10 crimes reported to police forces across the West Midlands result in anyone appearing in court – far fewer than five years ago. Giving evidence to the committee, Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon said jury trial cases were accumulating in the order of 1,000 a month. The committee also heard data showed that the number of cases heard each day with the use of audio and video technology increased from fewer than 1,000 in the last week of March to over 3,000 by mid-April.

Committee chairman Sir Robert Neill, said the backlog needed to be addressed while also looking at how technology affects access to justice. He said: “Justice delayed can be justice denied. More and more people are waiting for their day in court. We welcome the Government’s attempts to reduce the backlog by thinking beyond simply increasing sitting days.

“We also urge it to ensure that access to justice remains at the heart of its proposals. We are impressed by the way new technology has been used by courts to speed things along in some cases, but more research is needed on how ordinary people – defendants and witnesses – experience this technology.”

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