England

Magistrate court cases take a week longer to complete

Magistrates warned the justice system was "on the cusp" of breakdown when the BBC studied annual courts data Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Magistrates warned the justice system was 'on the cusp' of breakdown a year ago. Since then, case completions take on average eight days longer

A victim's charity says growing court delays are damaging "the public's confidence in the criminal justice system".

When the BBC probed courts data last year, some magistrates warned their courts were "on the cusp" of breakdown.

One year on, the average time taken to complete magistrate cases in England has risen 6% from 151 days to 159 days.

The Ministry of Justice said £1bn was being spent improving courts.

The BBC's findings come amid the closures of 47 of 186 English magistrate courts. And earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee found the court system to be "bedevilled by long standing poor performance including delays and inefficiencies".

The ministry publishes quarterly statistics, which break down how long the various stages of the criminal justice system take.

In 2014-2015, four justice areas - Sussex, North Hampshire, Central, Oxfordshire and South West Staffordshire - took more than 200 days on average to deal with cases from the day an offence was committed.

This year, seven justice areas - Oxfordshire, Central and South West Staffordshire, Chorley, Bedfordshire, Wellingborough, North Essex and Gateshead - have taken 200 days or longer to finish cases.

The biggest rises were seen in the Isle of Wight, up 54% from 67 days to 104, Corby, up 47% from 136 days to 199.8 and St Helens, up 33% from 104 days to 138.

Meanwhile Kettering, Wigan and Leigh, North Hampshire and Sussex (Western) justice areas have all seen the speed of justice improve by more than 20% in the past year.

The MoJ figures show while there has a been a small increase in the average time courts take to deal with cases, the amount of time between a defendant being charged and being listed for court has risen by two days.

Essex defence lawyer Caroline Woodley said despite some improvements in her county's judicial system, issues in other service areas - such as prisons and the police service - were causing knock-on problems.

She said magistrate court appeals were often delayed because of a shortage of a judge or magistrates (appeals involve one judge and two magistrates) and claimed a decision to house female defendants from Essex at HMP Peterborough meant prison transport officers were unable to get them to court for a 10:00 start.

Image copyright BBC/Laurence Cawley
Image caption Lawyer Caroline Woodley said she had seen first hand issues getting some prisoners to court on time

Ms Woodley said many defence lawyers were nervous about "virtual courts" because they would end up being managed by police, prison or private sector staff rather than court employees and could erode the connection between defendants and justices.

Lucy Hastings, director of the charity Victim Support, said: "Our research shows that waiting a long time to receive justice can be extremely stressful for victims and witnesses, preventing them from moving on with their lives.

"The court's failure to process criminal cases within a reasonable time frame, damages the public's confidence in the criminal justice system itself."

Speed of justice

159 days

The average time to complete a magistrates' court case in 2015-16

  • 8 days more than the previous year

  • 460 court and tribunal buildings in England and Wales

  • 86 have closed or are in the process of closing

Thinkstock

Responding to the BBC's findings, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said: "We want a justice system that works for everyone. That means creating a system that is just, efficient and simple."

The ministry confirmed tests have been carried out on the use of mobile courts, in which defendants can get into the back of a van and attend court by video rather than having to go to the building.

The trial involved a court van being deployed at HMP Thameside which linked into hearings at Thames Magistrates' and Snaresbrook Crown Court.

The ministry did not say if or when the mobile court scheme would be extended elsewhere in the country.

"We are investing £1bn to reform and digitise our courts," a spokeswoman said. "That will give users access to new technology and simpler processes designed to resolve disputes more quickly."

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