Crown Court cases backlog rises to more than 500

The number of Crown Court cases outstanding in Northern Ireland has passed 500 during the pandemic.

The total increased by almost 200 and hearings have been “inevitably delayed” since last March’s lockdown, Stormont’s Justice Department said.

Extra court space has been acquired at the International Convention Centre at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast and plans on facilitating other further business are being developed.

Victim Support NI chief executive Geraldine Hanna said: “Victims were regularly waiting for two years or more for their case to reach court, with the more serious cases taking even longer.

“During this time, the seeming lack of movement in the quest for justice can lead to serious issues with mental health.

“Our fear is that more victims may choose to drop out of the criminal justice journey in order to recover from the impact of crime and move on with their lives.”

Prior to the March 2020 lockdown, there were 352 Crown Court cases outstanding.

Notwithstanding August’s restart of jury trials, this has now risen to 521, the Justice Department confirmed.

At the time of the first lockdown, cases would have been at stages including arraignment, case management, trial and sentencing.

They continued to be managed by judges throughout the period.

The Justice Department said: “As jury trials did not resume until August 2020, cases were inevitably delayed by the impact of Covid-19 but it is not possible to quantify the figure.”

Ms Hanna’s organisation has helped scores of people harmed by crime navigate the potentially daunting judicial process.

She said: “The delays in the Northern Ireland court system were already a massive issue affecting victims and witnesses before the Covid pandemic hit.

“The Covid-related court closures have exacerbated this issue even further.”

She acknowledged efforts by justice agencies to progress cases in a safe and secure manner, and said she hoped technology can assist.

“We are also pleased to see the Nightingale courts open, as these will help to process some of the backlog.

“As courts reopen, we must ensure that the cases that do run are run safely and that appropriate provision is given to victims who feel vulnerable or unsafe due to the requirement to attend court buildings.

“All criminal justice agencies must work together to ensure effective case management in order to minimise the disruption and confusion for victims.

“We would also ask that there is more agreement between agencies on the use of papers and that people are not called to attend court unnecessarily.”

The department said significant work has been undertaken to ensure court business did not completely grind to a halt and to recover ground lost during the pandemic’s initial phase.

Jury trials resumed in August, with significant adaptations made at Laganside, Antrim, Craigavon, Coleraine, Newry and Dungannon Courthouses and protective measures introduced to ensure proceedings could go ahead safely.

The Justice Department said: “Plans are also being developed to facilitate other courts and tribunals business.

“Two additional jury courtrooms are also due to come into operation at Laganside in February and March, with work also commencing on three further jury courtrooms outside Belfast in Antrim, Newry and Dungannon, which are aiming to become operational in April.”

Accommodation for services relocated from Derry and Craigavon Courthouses has been established.