Lord Chief Justice calls for smaller juries to clear courts backlog

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Lord Chief Justice
Lord Chief Justice

The Lord Chief Justice has said the pandemic has led to “deeply damaging” delays in the justice system, and suggested juries should be made smaller to clear the backlog.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Lord Burnett of Maldon expressed his frustration that certain offences “do seem to take a long time to investigate now”.

The senior judge expressed particular concern over the time taken for sexual assault and rape cases to reach court.

“Put yourself in the position of a complainant or a defendant waiting years for trial. You don’t know what’s going on for all that time. It’s just deeply damaging to people.”

Lord Burnett said the backlog in Crown Court trials (up by 50 per cent since March 2020 to more than 57,000) was of serious concern, caused by a decade of budget cuts and exacerbated by Covid-19.

The Lord Chief Justice suggested that one solution may be to reduce the size of juries, saying that “an opportunity was missed to introduce a temporary reduction in jury size” in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. Juries were reduced to seven during the Second World War.

Lord Burnett asked: “Do some of the low-grade cases that go to the Crown Court really need as many as 12 [jurors].”

The gap between an offence being committed and a verdict in a Crown Court has grown from an average of 391 days to 511 in less than a decade, according to the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), with rape cases taking an average of 1,100 days, or more than three years.

The pandemic has added to pressures. Each week twice as many trials are now moved to a new date as resolved. Before 2020, the numbers of cases moved and resolved were roughly equal.

The CBA said it was "commonplace for defendants on bail to receive trial dates into the spring of 2023 relating to alleged criminal offences that will have by then taken place four or five years previously”.

Lord Burnett said delays were not purely a problem for the courts. He said: “The CPS needs to be able to keep up, probation need to be able to keep up.”

IT system ‘belongs in Science Museum’

Lord Burnett also complained about the state of the judicial IT system, pointing out there was no method for accurately recording the number of trials taking place daily.

“You might think our system could produce an accurate figure of how many trials there were at the end of every day,” said Lord Burnett, “but they can’t. We are using clunking old systems that frankly should be in the Science Museum.”

Problems with investigating and prosecuting rapes have been highlighted in recent days with figures showing how the number of allegations leading to conviction has plummeted in five years from 17.2 per cent to just 1.6 per cent.

Latest figures show 44 per cent of rape victims now walk away rather than endure delays in the system. Lord Burnett’s comments – made as part of an investigation into the Criminal Justice System by The Telegraph – have been reinforced by the Court of Appeal judge Lord Justice Edis, who said that police resources deployed to scrutinise electronic devices “are enormous”.

Lord Justice Edis added: “It can take an investigation team months in an individual sex case where there’s only two phones. In a big drug case there may be hundreds of phones; in a terrorism case, there are often hundreds of phones.”

Earlier this month, Lady Nourse, widow of Sir Martin Nourse, a leading judge, told The Telegraph that she felt “massive injustice” after being being exonerated of historic child sex abuse charges in just three hours, having had to wait three years for the verdict after the allegations against her were first made.

Lord Burnett, the head of the judiciary in England and Wales, also pointed out the difficulties of investigating current rape cases, accepting “there is a real problem” with police forces being forced to trawl the mobile phones of victims. “There is a real problem at the moment in interrogating electronic devices,” he said.

‘Delays are deeply damaging to victims’: Read the full interview with Lord Burnett

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