St Albans Crown Court has a backlog of approximately two years and concerns have been raised that criminal justice is on the ‘edge of a crisis’.
Hertfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner David Lloyd, who is the national lead on criminal justice, has written to the Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor calling for urgent action.
Waiting times for cases to reach crown court are up to three-years in some parts of England and Wales.
On behalf of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners he warns the COVID-19 crisis has extended court waiting times, which could lead to less victims reporting crimes and lower conviction rates.
Those accused are also waiting years to clear their names, while serial offenders will be free to carry on harming communities before they face justice, he added.
To address the issue Mr Lloyd is calling for a significant change of culture within the system and a devolution of sovereignty to Local Criminal Justice Boards to make plans, hold to account and solve problems. Along with more use of video technology to speed up cases and setting up additional courts in buildings such as sports centres.
Mr Lloyd said: “I am concerned about the backlog that is coming down the line nationally and what consequences it will bring.
“Until we get better data sharing from criminal justice agencies, such as HM Courts and Tribunals Service, we can’t see exactly how great this problem is.
“The average backlog today is two years, if matters are not addressed we will get to a point where the whole system grinds to a halt.
“Broadly the aim of for those going into the criminal justice system, is that their case should be dealt with within six months. Both victims and their accused should be able to get justice in this time period so they can move on with their lives.
“In addition, we have an incredibly low conviction rate for rape nationally, and we know many victims currently do not even report their attacks to police. If they know that it will be years, and even then, they may not get their day in court, that rate will fall even lower.”
Mr Lloyd is also concerned that the public will lose faith in reporting crimes to police if they feel the offender will not be successfully and swiftly prosecuted.
“Our country is based on the rule of law and if confidence is lost in the criminal justice system then we will be a in a really bad place.
“These delays will also cause issues with witnesses when they take the stand, making it hard for them to remember what happened years before.
“Defence lawyers will start to say to tell their clients to plead not guilty so they can wait to see what happens.
“We need more localism and local legislation to address issues on the ground. I see no reason why a court room could not be set up in a week, you just need a large room and to take account of security considerations.
“We must realise that we are in a crisis, and that we need to think outside the box to get through it.”