Court prosecutors hugely overburdened as thousands of people await trial

A backlog that has left thousands of people waiting for trials in court is unlikely to go anyway, says the outgoing director of public prosecution.

Max Hill KC says the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) staff were “hugely overburned”. He was speaking to the BBC as he prepares to end his term later this month.

Hill says the CPS is struggling to find barristers to run cases in court. But still wants victims of rape to have confidence in the prosecution service as their cases are “being prioritised”.

Having started his term five years ago, Hill’s term has seen a number of challenges including courts closing during the pandemic, cuts, and a criminal defence barrister strike over legal aid pay rates. And the Crown Courts now have a backlog of around 65,000 trials.

Of those, 40,000 are from before the pandemic. The CPS’s preferred method for counting says there are 75,000 individual defendants awaiting trial.

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The Government wants to see the backlog cut to 53,000 by 2025. Hill told the BBC: “We are at an all-time high. The backlog is not going to be removed next month, even next year. We have to all understand that.

“There are only so many courts. The judiciary is slightly expanded, but there are only so many people who are available for appointment as judges.”

The CPS staffing level has increased by around a third to just over 7,300 since 2018. However, Hill says that is still below the 2010 high of 8,000.

Hill says there are also too few criminal barristers, who are working independently of the CPS, to present cases to judges. He says the existing CPS barristers are also tied-up, meaning they too cannot present cases to judges.

Hill added: “I have spent five years going around all of our offices talking to all of our staff, looking at how much pressure they are under. They are hugely overburdened – the number of individual live cases on a prosecutor’s laptop today is far greater than I would like it to be.”

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The Ministry of Justice has removed the cap on the number of days judges are paid to address the backlog. And last year it settled the dispute with barristers over pay rates for defending criminal cases.

Hill says one way to address the backlog further would be to deal with defendants who could be dealth with quickly first – such as those on remain or who are willing to plead guilty. However, he says serious crimes such as rape need to be prioritised.

At present there are 2,300 rape cases waiting to go before a court. This, the BBC says, is four times higher than before the coronavirus pandemic.

It is estimates to take three-and-a-half years for a rape case to result in an outcome. Hill, who believes a new method of reporting known as Operation Soteria will help build confidence from victims, said: “I wouldn’t blame any victim of rape, for saying, I can only wait so long, I can only put my life on hold for so long.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We recognise the devastating impact of rape and are doing more than ever before to ensure victims feel supported at all stages of the criminal justice process.

“This includes quadrupling funding for specialist support services compared to 2010, announcing new legislation to ensure rapists spend their entire sentence behind bars and a new 24/7 support line for victims of rape and sexual abuse and the national rollout of pre-recorded cross-examination.”

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