Crime victims are being ‘badly let down’ by huge backlogs in a court system brought to crisis point by the coronavirus crisis, the Shadow Justice Secretary has said during a visit to Nottingham.
Labour’s David Lammy said the current backlog of 41,000 crown court cases – which the independent inspectorate has said will take a decade to clear – was ‘unacceptable’.
He said the Government ‘urgently’ needed to organise a Nightingale court in the East Midlands to address the problem.
He also said the closure of dozens of magistrates’ courts across the country since 2010 had contributed to a backlog of half a million cases.
Half of all magistrates’ courts and eight out of 92 crown courts have closed since 2010. In 2019, the Government announced plans to close 77 more courts over the next seven years.
Mr Lammy’s warning comes after a senior judge ruled the shortage of courtrooms to hear jury trials is “neither a good nor a sufficient cause” to keep defendants in custody beyond the time limit.
This means people awaiting trial could have to be released while the backlog remains.
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Speaking near Nottingham Crown Court today (Wednesday, August 5), Mr Lammy, who was previously a barrister himself, said: “I think if you have experienced serious crime, a serious sexual offence, murder or manslaughter or serious robbery, you want to see justice delivered, and you want it delivered in a speedy way.
“And you certainly don’t want a situation in which the delays are so extensive that evidence is lost or not as good, memories are forgotten, and someone gets off.
“That’s why the backlog that’s mounting is worrying. It’s why the Government needs to bring forward, rapidly, Nightingale courts, and there isn’t one in this region.
“There has to be some speed to this, otherwise victims and families suffer.”
The Government currently has plans for 10 Nightingale courts, but the nearest to Nottingham are Leeds and Peterborough.
Asked whether he feared Nottingham and the East Midlands could be particularly badly affected, Mr Lammy said: “Nottingham also takes cases from the Derby area, Lincoln, so if you’re not bringing forward some of the cases that are happening in this city, and you’re having to take cases from other places, plus you’ve got local courts like Mansfield that are closed, you can see there’s going to be a lot of pressure building up in the system.
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“I pay tribute to the staff at the crown court here for the tremendous work they’re doing, and they have kept the court open throughout this coronavirus period, and credit to them, but they are going to need more support from the Government if justice is going to be delivered in this area, and support to the police, who still have to arrest people.”
Asked what Labour would do to help alleviate the backlog, and how much this would cost, he said: “Let me be clear, there was a backlog before the coronavirus in this region. It was extensive. Austerity hit the region hard, and hit the court service hard particularly. It is not all a result of coronavirus.
“But perhaps because money wasn’t spent in better times, there’s real pressure now.
“What I’ve said as the Shadow Justice Secretary, is that I do want to see Nightingale courts brought forward. It was our idea in my shadow team to see those courts brought forward, because it seemed to us there were buildings sitting empty in towns and cities right across the country.
“We also think it’s important in these times that where there is real need because of the recession that’s looming, that we do have access to justice, and that law centres are supported, and that we have proper functioning legal aid, so that people know their rights and can exercise their rights.”
The Ministry of Justice has been approached for comment.