By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
Some Kent court cases are being heard in London due to a growing backlog amid the pandemic, it has emerged.
Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott says delays for criminal proceedings at crown courts are “worse” in his area than England’s other 48 counties.
He revealed wait times are lengthening, with some hearings and trials facing delays until 2023. This is due to a shortage of legal advisers and jury trials suspended due to Covid outbreaks.
Mr Scott said: “The backlog here in Kent, particularly in crown courts, is worse than anywhere in the country.
“We have a court estate which is not suited to social distancing, so at times many courts are not able to open.”
He added: “Around 10% of our trials are heard in London.”
There are many different elements to the criminal justice system, including the police, who investigate the crimes and put forward charges.
These are then approved by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), who prosecutes criminal cases that have been investigated by the police, before heard and concluded in court.
In March, it was found there were more than 57,000 outstanding crown court trials in the country, compared to 39,000 trials recorded a year before.
Last week, Canterbury City Councillor Ashley Clark shared a personal “bitter” experience of being at court after he was victim to an assault three years ago.
It took around two and a half years for his case to go to court, despite the offender pleading guilty on the first occasion, according to Cllr Clark.
His comments were made during a public meeting in Maidstone County Hall. Cllr Clark added: “A lot of people are not getting the justice they deserve.”
One solution that has been put forward is to extend the use of emergency Nightingale Courts.
Nightingale Courtrooms were set up by the Ministry of Justice last August to increase court capacity and ensure more trials can be heard amid Covid.
The UK government set up 32 venues in England until the end of March 2022, including expanding Maidstone Combined Court in Kent.
Mr Scott has described this as a “short term solution” but called for wider changes that would see the permanent expansion of court room space.
He said: “Otherwise, I fear a catastrophic loss in confidence to victims. The current backlog means we are seeing cases listed until 2023.”
Assistant Chief Constable Simon Wilson, of Kent Police, said “lessons are being learnt” where there have been delays to court cases.
New measures are being introduced, such as increasing oversight by line managers and “strong” case files submitted to the CPS at the first attempt.
Mr Wilson said: “We have a shared objective of securing justice for victims.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £1billion boost for the Ministry of Justice to improve wait times and reduce court backlogs in October.
It has been described as the largest funding increase in more than a decade for the justice system.
The CPS declined to provide a public comment.