Thousands of Suffolk court cases still caught in pandemic backlog
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There are nearly 5,000 court cases waiting to be heard in Suffolk due to the pandemic's unprecedented impact on the criminal justice system, it has emerged.
Latest statistics released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) showed that Suffolk's criminal courts have made inroads into the total - but there is still a long way to go.
Between January and March, 4,950 cases remained outstanding - 4,041 at Suffolk Magistrates' Court and 909 at Ipswich Crown Court. At Chelmsford Crown Court the number was 1,028.
The total represents the second successive overall fall – from a peak of 5,955 in the third quarter of last year, between July and September.
But the number remains significantly higher (by 68%) than in the months before the first lockdown last year – and includes 27 robberies, 210 violent offences and 96 sex offences.
Suffolk's police and crime commissioner, Tim Passmore, who has previously called for a temporary 'Nightingale Court' to provide extra capacity, said: “Any reduction in the backlog of court cases is very welcome.
"However, there are still too many outstanding cases, which is partly due to the restrictions in use of court space caused by the pandemic but also capacity issues.
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“Prior to Covid-19, the system was not delivering sufficiently well and in a timely manner, and this, in my view, has not been helped by the closures of the magistrates' courts in Lowestoft and Bury St Edmunds.
"I remain very concerned that justice needs to be done and there needs to be fair access to it, and remembering for each crime there is a victim, the whole system needs to focus on the plight of victims, and ensure the system provides an appropriate approach to dealing with witnesses and alleged offenders.
"This must be a top priority and the challenges need to be rectified as a matter of great urgency.
“I am also particularly troubled by the low level of prosecution rates for offences such as domestic and sexual abuse and violence whilst remembering the police recorded levels of domestic abuse have increased during the pandemic.
"There remains a great deal to do to give victims of crime the confidence to proceed with investigations and get timely outcomes.”
Throughout last year, there were a total of 25,686 criminal court hearings in Suffolk – the most since 25,759 in 2014 and compared to 17,912 in 2019.
Receipts of cases have continued to increase as the court systems recovers from restrictions on capacity.
In the most recent quarter, there were 3,017 receipts and 3,262 disposals at Suffolk Magistrates' Court, while Ipswich Crown Court received 358 cases and dealt with 342.
The MoJ said Ipswich Crown Court’s disposals were now exceeding receipts and that building alterations across the region had ensured that 55 courtrooms were currently capable of safely accommodating jury trials.
It said efforts had allowed a rapid increase in the use of video technology, with about 20,000 weekly hearings involving remote participants nationwide, and that it continued to consider where Nightingale Courts were needed for local operational reasons.
A spokesperson added: “We have kept justice moving throughout the pandemic – outstanding magistrates cases are falling and we have over 55 court rooms operating in the region.
“We are prioritising urgent cases and investing £450m to increase capacity.”