This post was contributed by Ms Charlotte Crilly, Module Convenor for Legal system and method.
A recent article in the British press put the spotlight on the criminal justice system, asking “Is our justice system on the brink of collapse?”.
This is not just a recent question. In 2016, a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found that the criminal justice system was “close to breaking point” and that its ability to deliver justice was under threat.
In 2022, there are continuing and serious problems with the ability of the criminal justice system to deliver justice. In April 2022 the House of Commons Justice Committee noted that there was a backlog of 58,818 cases in the Crown Court and that too many people were waiting too long for justice to be done. Delays in criminal court cases have serious implications for defendants, witnesses and victims.
In September 2022, criminal barristers took the unprecedented action of holding an indefinite, uninterrupted strike. With barristers not available to represent defendants or prosecute cases in court, many criminal trials had to be postponed. The strike was eventually ended after the government made a revised pay offer. Nonetheless, the low rates of pay from criminal legal aid are leading to large numbers of barristers permanently giving up this kind of work.
Delays to court proceedings caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and during the social distancing rules that followed, have also played a part in delays to criminal justice. The fact that jury trials could not be held during the pandemic led to an increase in the backlog in cases in the criminal courts. Although magistrates’ courts continued to operate to some extent during the pandemic, they were not able to operate at anything close to normal levels.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, however, there were delays and backlogs in the criminal justice system, said to be caused by factors including a lack of funding of the system, cuts to criminal legal aid, the closure of courts and a lack of availability of judges, legal professionals and court staff. The government has plans to reduce the backlog in the Crown Court, but these have been criticised as being insufficient and unrealistic.
 ITV news, “Is our justice system on the brink of collapse?”, 29 October 2022, available at https://www.itv.com/news/2022-10-29/is-our-justice-system-on-the-brink-of-collapse?s=09
 Committee of Public Accounts, “Efficiency in the criminal justice system”, 23 May 2016, available at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmpubacc/72/7202.htm
 House of Commons Committee report, “Court Capacity”, Sixth Report of Session 2021–22, available at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5802/cmselect/cmjust/69/report.html
 See the Justice Committee report, “Coronavirus (COVID-19): The impact on courts”, 30 July 2020, available at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmjust/519/51902.htm
 See the Public Accounts Committee report, “Reducing the backlog in criminal courts”, 28 February 2022, available at https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/9159/documents/159649/default/