Background to the report

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected the work of the criminal justice system and necessitated extensive changes in criminal courts to keep judges, court staff, and users safe.

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In the year to 30 June 2021, criminal courts dealt with 1.24 million cases, including more than 90,000 in the Crown Court, which hears the most serious cases. By the end of June 2021, there were around 61,000 cases received and not yet completed in the Crown Court, and more than 364,000 cases received and not yet completed in the magistrates’ courts. The Crown Court backlog increased by 48% between 31 March 2020 and 30 June 2021.

Scope of the report

This report assesses the Ministry of Justice’s (the Ministry’s) and Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS’s) plans for, and progress in, reducing the backlog in criminal courts. The report primarily focuses on the Crown Court where the backlog is acute.

The report examines:

  • trends in the backlog up to and since the onset of the pandemic and the impact on victims, witnesses and defendants (Part One);
  • HMCTS’s emergency response and pandemic recovery programme (Part Two); and
  • the Ministry’s forecasts for the backlog, the long-term action plan to address it and the risks to long-term recovery (Part Three).

Report conclusions

The COVID-19 pandemic presented the criminal justice system with an unprecedented challenge. It has had an acute impact on criminal courts, which were already strained in the year leading up to the pandemic. HMCTS responded effectively to the crisis as it unfolded and to changing operational requirements, including the suspension of all jury trials, and their resumption when conditions allowed.

Despite the concerted efforts of HMCTS and the Ministry to increase capacity in criminal courts quickly and safely, the Crown Court backlog looks likely to be a pervasive issue beyond 2024. This means more victims, witnesses and defendants will continue to be severely affected. In their work to recover, the Ministry and HMCTS cannot afford to lose sight of the impact that both the backlog and their recovery programme have on court users, particularly those who are vulnerable or have traditionally faced discrimination, including ethnic minorities.

Given the complexity and interdependencies in the criminal justice system, the Ministry is right to take a whole-system view of recovery. But if sustainable recovery in criminal courts is to be effective, the Ministry will need to improve its leadership of the system, including by agreeing clear, shared objectives for recovery and significantly improving the quality of its data. Without this, there is a risk that further investment will not support long-term value for money, ensure timely access to justice, or improve the experiences of victims, witnesses and defendants.

“Despite efforts to increase capacity in criminal courts, it looks likely that the backlog will remain a problem for many years. The impact on victims, witnesses and defendants is severe and it is vital that the Ministry of Justice works effectively with its partners in the criminal justice system to minimise the delays to justice.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO


Publication details

Press release

View press release (22 Oct 2021)

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