Recovery from the pandemic in the criminal courts in Wales follows the same principles as those across the border in England. Our efforts since the pandemic hit have focused on:
- maximising the use of our existing estate
- providing additional capacity through Nightingale courts
- using remote or video hearings where appropriate
- working as flexibly as possible in our buildings
Though a national approach across England and Wales, our recovery plan recognises that every region is different. Each area has its own local circumstances, and variations in its outstanding caseload. We’re lucky that each of our Local Criminal Justice Board Areas are supported by exceptionally good working relationships with everyone involved in the criminal justice system across Wales. I’m immensely grateful to each and every person involved, for their ongoing commitment and endless dedication to providing the service that the Welsh public need.
Recovery in the Magistrates’ Court
Successful recovery in magistrates’ courts in Wales is confirmed in the outstanding caseload, which has now largely returned to pre-pandemic levels.
At the start of the pandemic, we operated with just seven open courts to hear priority cases. By May 2020, we’d reopened 37 of our 46 magistrates’ courtrooms for face-to-face hearings. Like all HMCTS venues, our courts are subject to ongoing risk assessments and social distancing measures.
We also held additional magistrates’ court hearings in venues across Wales where possible. This meant we could both decrease the volume of outstanding work and improve our speed in listing cases.
By the end of the year (December 2020), we’d made significant steps to ensure cases that could be heard remotely out of court buildings, when decided by the judiciary. This protected precious physical courtroom space for certain cases that needed to be heard in person. We increased our use of the Cloud Video Platform (CVP) for council tax and low-level motoring offences, held remote single justice procedure (SJP) sessions in the evening, and dealt with indictable-only cases (which must be passed from the Magistrates’ to be heard in the Crown Court) via CVP and telephone hearings.
We’re now adept at deploying our available resources in a more strategic way too. For example, we temporarily relocated District Judges to those areas that were facing more challenges with recovery.
As a result, before December, in Wales, we’d returned to listing guilty anticipated plea (GAP) cases within 14 days, and non-guilty anticipated plea (NGAP) cases within 28 days. This is the same as their timeframes before COVID-19.
When Wales went back into national lockdown at the start of this year, our magistrates’ courts helped people attend remotely wherever possible. This reduced the number of people coming to court in line with the Lord Chief Justice’s direction, and reassured court users that their safety was paramount.
We’re now holding even more in-person hearings, in line with a further message from the Lord Chief Justice. We’re also finalising roughly the same as before the pandemic. We continue to prioritise domestic abuse work, youth cases and COVID-related offences, all of which are being listed without any delay. This is an incredible achievement.
Recovery in the Crown Court
In the Crown Court, we’ve also made strong progress. By the end of last year, over 75% of our Crown Court rooms were safely accommodating jury trials, To maximise capacity, we use the remainder for non-trial work to progress cases and for sentencing to make sure we make best use of all the space we have.
One of the most challenging areas, is always that of “multi-handers” (trials involving multiple defendants). This is even more difficult during COVID-19. We need to socially distance participants from one another, both in the dock and in court custody suites. The more participants, the more space we need to list these outstanding cases.
Since the start of January 2021, however, we’ve made good progress in this area. We're making physical changes to Crown Courts in Wales, which are helping us hear more cases involving multiple defendants in custody and reduce the number of these trials waiting to be heard.
For example, installing screens in the dock and well of Court 1 at Caernarfon Crown Court, means that the courtroom can now safely hear trials involving up to seven defendants. Extending the dock at Newport Crown Court meant we could hold a 10-week murder trial involving seven defendants, which concluded in March.
In this case, the entire court building was used for the trial: one courtroom held the judge, jury, defendants and counsel, a second was used for jury deliberation and a third was available as overspill for the press and public to view the trial. The court building at Newport is now holding a trial with nine defendants, which is scheduled to last 15 weeks.
Inevitably, using multiple courtrooms for a trial impacts how many other trials can happen at the same time. Our courts are making tough choices, which are ultimately a matter for Resident Judges, but with the excellent support of the operational teams, we're ensuring complex trials are heard successfully.
Alongside this, Swansea Civic Centre became one of the first HMCTS ‘Nightingale’ courts. It opened its doors to non-custodial crime work from nearby Swansea Crown Court back in August. Since then, it’s been used over 80% of the time, providing additional courtroom capacity to deal with a large number of criminal cases. It is a pivotal and longstanding venue of our ‘Nightingale’ programme.
Installing portacabins as jury deliberating and assembly rooms at two locations in our region – Caernarfon and Swansea – also increased hearing capacity.
Together towards recovery
Effective working relationships with our partners are essential to continuing our recovery progress into the next 12 months. In delivering criminal justice across Wales, we work together in formal groups, such as the Criminal Justice in Wales Board, to bring together devolved and non-devolved, statutory and non-statutory services. We’re already making plans to enhance and formalise these partnerships across the Welsh criminal justice system in 2021/22. This will focus on four key areas: victims and witnesses, people who have offended, early intervention and prevention, and race equality.
Through these relationships we will keep working together with partner agencies, legal professionals, Welsh policing, Police and Crime Commissioners, Public Health Wales, the Welsh Government, voluntary sector bodies and the Victims’ Commissioner. Together we will maintain the progress made so far and build on it during the year ahead.
I’ll end on this quote from the Presiding Judge of Wales, Mr Justice Simon Picken, who summed it up rather well in recent sentencing remarks:
“I am proud of what has been achieved not only in relation to this trial, but more generally, since not everybody knows that in Wales we now have no backlog in the magistrates’ courts and have now also largely recovered in the Crown Courts. This is the result of sheer hard work on the part of the judges in Wales and on the part of court staff whose efforts are not always appreciated. I wish to record my thanks to everybody for what has been achieved.”