Call for court reform as trials begin - and work starts on clearing lockdown backlog

Trials are set to start again at Ipswich Crown Court Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Trials are set to start again at Ipswich Crown Court Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Criminal trials are finally set to resume after almost four months at Ipswich Crown Court – but serious concern has been raised about clearing the backlog of unheard cases.

Suffolk's police and crime commissioner, Tim Passmore Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Suffolk's police and crime commissioner, Tim Passmore Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Following health and safety assessments, Ipswich Crown Court is among six listed to resume trials from today, bringing the total number of courts hearing jury trials to 54 out of 77 currently open.

Jury trials are set to restart under special arrangements to ensure the safety of participants.

Suffolk’s police and crime commissioner Tim Passmore said clearing the backlog of trials was a cause of great concern.

In March, almost half of all courts were closed, and jury trials paused, to minimise social interaction between court users.

The Ministry of Justice said about 90% of hearings across all jurisdictions had utilised audio and video equipment during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ipswich Crown Court has dealt with a range of other work like trial preparation hearings, further case management, sentences, urgent applications for bail and hearings to extend custody time limits.

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Meanwhile, Suffolk Magistrates’ Court, also in Ipswich, was among the priority court and tribunal buildings to remain open for essential face-to-face hearings.

Now jury trials can finally resume and there is a huge backlog of cases thathave built up over the past 17 weeks.

Mr Passmore said: “It’s a cause of great concern how the backlog is going to be cleared.

“I’m concerned that the criminal justice system needs a radical overhaul to remain fit for purpose.”

Mr Passmore opposed the closure of Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft magistrates’ courts – among 160 court buildings closed since 2010 – which he said had already put strain on the remaining court in Ipswich.

“It was the wrong decision to reduce the number from three to one,” he said.

“This pandemic has shone a light on a number of challenges. Now is a good time for radical renewal, so we can have a criminal justice system in which we can be proud.”

Last night, the government announced 10 ‘Nightingale Courts’ would begin hearing cases from next week to ease pressure on the system and tackle the number of outstanding cases.

MoJ headquarters in London will be among the venues used, with ongoing work to identify more potential locations to hear civil, family and tribunal work, as well as non-custodial crime cases, in a move to free up room in existing courts to hear custodial jury trials, which require cells and secure dock facilities.

The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland said the government was committed to pursuing every available option.

Last week, he set out further measures being considered to help ease pressure, including opening courts for longer to increase the number of cases heard on any given day, and continuing to use video technology where appropriate.

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