Page last updated at 00:56 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

Watchdog warning on court delays

The scales of justice at the Old Bailey
One MP said some courts were "at breaking point"

Victims and witnesses face long delays in criminal trials because of a shortage of courtrooms, the government spending watchdog has warned.

The National Audit Office (NAO) says the worst-affected Crown Courts were in London and the south-east of England.

The watchdog also criticises a 20-year-old computer system which means staff must post documents to each other.

The Courts Service says it plans to spend 130m over the next three years to create 30 new court rooms.

In its report, the NAO said cases were being heard in 500 courts in almost 100 locations. During 2007, the system dealt with 135,000 cases - up about 5% on 2005.

Some courthouses are almost at breaking point - long delays in starting trials do not serve the cause of criminal justice
Edward Leigh MP

But the watchdog found about half of all cases in Surrey, Sussex, London and the Thames Valley took four months to begin. It said delays were unfair to victims and witnesses.

Its report also heavily criticised the Courts Service's continued reliance on a computer system that was now so old it was no longer supported by its manufacturers.

'Not serving justice'

The "Crest" system was introduced 20 years ago and is central to managing cases across the system, including allocating court time.

Some information cannot be electronically added into the system - which means that staff in one court must fax or post documents to another where workers then re-key the details into the system.

The Courts Service is planning to renew the system by 2011, but the report warned: "The fact that Crest runs on ageing computers using an operating system no longer supported by the manufacturer represents a significant risk for HM Courts Service."

Courts in London and south-east England are now so overcrowded that the system is near breaking point, the National Audit Office says.

Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, which works closely with the NAO, said some courts could not cope.

"The Crown Court hears tens of thousands of the most serious criminal cases each year.

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"But some courthouses, particularly in London and the South East, are almost at breaking point. Long delays in starting trials do not serve the cause of criminal justice.

"I'm encouraged by the creative approach the Court Service takes to anticipate these problems, such as converting magistrates' court rooms.

"But, by preparing itself before the problems take root, it could tackle long delays and save time, money and worry."

John Howson, deputy chairman of the Magistrates' Association, discusses if the problem could be alleviated by giving magistrates' courts more power.

"We think there is a case for looking at legislation that would allow magistrates' courts to have 12 months custody powers in terms of sentencing, because in some cases that would relieve some of the pressure on crown courts and might also save money as magistrates' courts are cheaper than crown courts."

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