Promoting junior prosecutors will help clear courts backlog, says Labour

Emily Thornberry says plan will ‘get the wheels of justice turning’ as almost 350,000 cases await trial

Ministers have been told to “get the wheels of justice turning” again by allowing more legal specialists to serve as crown prosecutors to help clear the courts backlog.

With record numbers of outstanding cases in magistrates and crown courts in England and Wales, the shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry, said the more junior associate prosecutors were “not being used to the maximum extent possible” in crown courts due to an “unnecessary and outdated legal restriction”.

There are 127 criminal law specialists employed by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as associate prosecutors. They handle less contentious matters at magistrates court level, such as bail applications from defendants, uncontested applications to impose civil preventative orders and criminal proceedings relating to less serious, non-imprisonable offences.

But Labour said they were prevented from taking on the more serious casework dealt with by crown prosecutors in magistrates courts, such as initial hearings for offences that are due to be sent for trial in crown court.

The party has called for this law to be changed, saying associate prosecutors had years of experience and were already at an advanced stage in their careers but were forced to pursue costly and time-consuming retraining as generalist lawyers in order to become crown prosecutors.

Lifting restrictions on the 127 associate prosecutors employed by the CPS would represent an increase of those able to handle the workload currently reserved for crown prosecutors by up to two-thirds, Labour said.

“With the epidemic of violent crime, fraud and antisocial behaviour plaguing our communities, the government should be exploring every practical option that would help to tackle the backlogs across our court system and get the wheels of justice turning more rapidly again,” said Thornberry.

Labour would “immediately remove that restriction, and allow those staff to apply for crown prosecutor positions”, she said, adding: “That is the kind of can-do, common-sense action we need, getting all hands on deck to clear the backlogs gripping Britain, instead of a Tory government with its head in the sand.”

There was a backlog of 344,261 cases in magistrates courts in England and Wales, as of the end of the first quarter of 2022.

While the figure was down from a high of 422,169 at the end of the second quarter of 2020, it is still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels hovering just below 300,000 at the end of 2019.

The Attorney General’s Office and CPS have been contacted for comment.

The issue of a backlog in the courts will be prescient for the new prime minister, given they will take office on the same day that criminal barristers in England and Wales start an indefinite strike over levels of legal aid funding.

The justice secretary, Dominic Raab, is a strong supporter of the leadership candidate Rishi Sunak and is unlikely to remain in the cabinet if his rival, Liz Truss, widely viewed as the frontrunner, wins.

Earlier this month, Lucy Frazer, the financial secretary to the Treasury and a former solicitor general, strayed beyond her new brief in an article that said it was “simply unacceptable that victims do not get timely redress”.

“Fixing the system, speeding up justice, bringing criminals to face justice can and must be done,” she argued, pushing for a radical overhaul of court scheduling to remove the powers from judges’ hands and hand them to the Ministry of Justice.


Aubrey Allegretti

The GuardianTramp

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