Probleemgericht werken aan High Impact Crime
[279] 25 oktober 2021: Reducing the backlog in criminal courts

Inleiding en context

De laatste week van oktober is een feit, het is alweer maandag 25 oktober 2021 (gefeliciteerd Bart!). Vandaag een, laten we zeggen, ´beleidskennisparel´ over een onderwerp waar de rechtspraak in Nederland ook mee geconfronteerd wordt: achterstanden bij het verwerken van (straf)rechtszaken vanwege de COVID-19 pandemie. Dat blijkt niet alleen een probleem in Nederland te zijn, maar bijvoorbeeld ook in Zweden: https://bra.se/bra-in-english/home/publications/archive/publications/2021-04-27-the-impact-of-the-pandemic-on-the-workflow-within-the-legal-chain.html en zoals blijkt uit bijgesloten ´kennisparel´ ook in het Verenigd Koninkrijk. Daar verscheen afgelopen vrijdag een rapport van de UK National Audit Office over achterstanden bij het verwerken van strafzaken. Op dit moment speelt in Nederland ook een discussie hoe deze achterstanden weg te werken. Uiteraard wijkt de situatie van de strafrechtspraak in het VK af van die in Nederland, niet alleen qua organisatie en juridische aspecten maar ook qua cultuur. Maar toch valt er volgens mij voor de strafrechtketen in Nederland te leren van bijgesloten ´kennisparel´ voor wat betreft de concrete maatregelen om achterstanden in de (straf)rechtspraak weg te werken. Leren van de buren kan vaak geen kwaad om nationale oplossingen aan te dragen op het brede terrein van criminaliteit en rechtshandhaving, in dit geval voor de Nederlandse rechtspraak.     

Bron

UK National Audit Office (22 October 2021). Reducing the backlog in criminal courts. London: UK National Audit Office, 54 pp. https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Reducing-the-backlog-in-criminal-courts.pdf

Samenvatting

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected the work of the criminal justice system and necessitated extensive changes in criminal courts to keep judges, court staff, and users safe.

In the year to 30 June 2021, criminal courts dealt with 1.24 million cases, including more than 90,000 in the Crown Court, which hears the most serious cases. By the end of June 2021, there were around 61,000 cases received and not yet completed in the Crown Court, and more than 364,000 cases received and not yet completed in the magistrates’ courts. The Crown Court backlog increased by 48% between 31 March 2020 and 30 June 2021.

This report assesses the Ministry of Justice’s (the Ministry’s) and Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS’s) plans for, and progress in, reducing the backlog in criminal courts. The report primarily focuses on the Crown Court where the backlog is acute.

The report examines:

  • trends in the backlog up to and since the onset of the pandemic and the impact on victims, witnesses and defendants (Part One);
  • HMCTS’s emergency response and pandemic recovery programme (Part Two); and
  • the Ministry’s forecasts for the backlog, the long-term action plan to address it and the risks to long-term recovery (Part Three).

The COVID-19 pandemic presented the criminal justice system with an unprecedented challenge. It has had an acute impact on criminal courts, which were already strained in the year leading up to the pandemic. HMCTS responded effectively to the crisis as it unfolded and to changing operational requirements, including the suspension of all jury trials, and their resumption when conditions allowed. Despite the concerted efforts of HMCTS and the Ministry to increase capacity in criminal courts quickly and safely, the Crown Court backlog looks likely to be a pervasive issue beyond 2024. This means more victims, witnesses and defendants will continue to be severely affected. In their work to recover, the Ministry and HMCTS cannot afford to lose sight of the impact that both the backlog and their recovery programme have on court users, particularly those who are vulnerable or have traditionally faced discrimination, including ethnic minorities. Given the complexity and interdependencies in the criminal justice system, the Ministry is right to take a whole-system view of recovery. But if sustainable recovery in criminal courts is to be effective, the Ministry will need to improve its leadership of the system, including by agreeing clear, shared objectives for recovery and significantly improving the quality of its data. Without this, there is a risk that further investment will not support long-term value for money, ensure timely access to justice, or improve the experiences of victims, witnesses and defendants.

The backlog in criminal cases means victims, witnesses and defendants are waiting longer for their cases to be heard. Between 31 March 2020 and 30 June 2021, the number of cases older than a year in the Crown Court increased from 2,830 to 11,379 (302%) and from 246 to 1,316 (435%) for rape and sexual assault cases. Waiting times increased most in London, with the average age of a case increasing by 63% from 164 days on 31 March 2020 to 266 days on 30 June 2021. Delays could increase the risk of individuals withdrawing from the process and cases collapsing.

The report finds that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) responded quickly in the early stages of the pandemic, prioritising peoples’ safety and access to justice for urgent cases. It launched a courts recovery programme which increased Crown Court capacity by 30% between September 2020 and July 2021 through opening temporary courtrooms and modifying others.

The Ministry and HMCTS have a poor understanding of the impact the pandemic and recovery programme have had on court service users from ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups. The NAO found there has been slow progress in evaluating how vulnerable users have been affected by, for example, remote access to justice. There is also no evidence that the Ministry has any data on users’ ethnicity to carry out meaningful analysis on whether ethnic minority groups have been disadvantaged.

The Ministry’s progress with the ambitious long-term plan to support recovery in criminal courts hinges on securing funding and resources.

The plan aims to take a whole-system approach to recovery, including monitoring the impact of initiatives in one part of the criminal justice system on other areas. The Ministry recognises that it still needs to assess the costs of various initiatives, collect more evidence to understand what supports better case quality and court effectiveness, and recruit more analysts. The NAO has found that the Ministry and HMCTS are not yet working towards shared, strategic objectives for recovery in criminal courts. This makes it difficult for the Ministry and its agencies to align their plans or make strategic decisions about how to manage demand across the criminal justice system. These difficulties are exacerbated by long-standing issues with data which obscure the Ministry and HMCTS’s understanding of future demand.

Other significant risks remain to the Ministry and HMCTS’s efforts to reduce the backlog. These include long-term funding uncertainty as the Ministry estimates that it needs around an additional £500 million for criminal courts and £1.7 billion for legal aid, prisons and probation services to support recovery. The Ministry also recognises that recruiting enough judges to hear cases will be a challenge. The NAO recommends that the Ministry should agree with other criminal justice agencies a set of shared, published objectives for recovery in criminal courts that consider the implications for the rest of the criminal justice system. It should also devise and implement a plan to tackle the systemic barriers to collecting, using and sharing data effectively across the criminal justice system.

Afsluitend

Ondanks inspanningen om de capaciteit bij de strafrechters te vergroten, lijkt het erop dat de achterstand in het VK nog jarenlang een probleem zal blijven. De impact op slachtoffers, getuigen en beklaagden is groot en het is van vitaal belang dat het ministerie van Justitie effectief samenwerkt met zijn partners in de strafrechtketen om de vertragingen bij de rechter tot een minimum te beperken. Die waarschuwing vanuit het VK zou ook wel eens van toepassing kunnen zijn op de situatie in Nederland. Hopelijk biedt bijgesloten rapport handvaten en suggesties om deze situatie in Nederland te voorkomen. Vanuit het perspectief van verdachten, slachtoffers, advocatuur, de rechtspraak zelf en vooral het vertrouwen in de rechtspraak is een gerichte actie noodzakelijk om de achterstanden in de rechtspraak op orde te krijgen.

Tot zover maar weer, blijf gezond, optimistisch en wees vooral aardig voor elkaar. Alleen zo gaan we echt solidair met elkaar om. Tot de volgende ´kennisparel´ die over een paar dagen in jullie mailbox valt.

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