Court backlogs for most serious crimes 'may take years to clear'

In a new report, auditors assessed court backlogs in Scotland which built up during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Court backlogs for most serious crimes may not be cleared for another three years, auditors warn ScotCourts

Court backlogs may not be cleared for another three years, Scotland’s Auditor General has warned.

In a new report, auditors assessed court backlogs in Scotland which built up during the Covid pandemic.

In February this year, 28,029 total trials were outstanding compared to 43,606 in January 2022.

The reduction in waits has been credited to Scottish Government efforts which included having jury centres in cinemas and extra courts.

However, while significant progress has been made to reduce delays for summary trials such as common assault and robbery, victims may wait until March 2026 before crimes are brought to court.

Modelling predicts that trials in the High Court will return to the new baseline by March 2025 and Sheriff Court solemn by March 2026.

According to auditors, the backlog of High Court and sheriff solemn cases – the most serious crimes – reached their highest level in January 2023, with about 600 High Court cases and 2,500 Sheriff Court delays.

In comparison, summary cases have decreased from 40,860 outstanding trials in January 2022 to 24,946 in February 2023.

Delays in bringing these cases to court are expected to be cleared by March 2024.

Reducing the backlogs for solemn cases is challenging due to the increasing numbers of cases coming to court, auditors said.

Since the beginning of 2021/22, sheriff solemn case numbers have continued to be higher than pre-Covid levels, with the quarterly average of 1,441 in 2022/23 compared to 1,296 in 2018/19.

Auditor General Stephen Boyle has warned the Scottish Government’s delivery plan to address further backlogs must be in place “as soon as possible”.

Its publication was due in August 2022 but is now expect this summer.

Mr Boyle said: “The criminal trial backlog that built up during the pandemic has been substantially reduced thanks to effective partnership working, good use of data and innovation.

“But while the overall number has come down, the wait times for the most serious crimes, such as rape, have increased. And those delays come with a human cost for victims, witnesses and defendants.

“That is why it’s vital that the Scottish Government has a delivery plan in place as soon as possible to further address the backlog and reform the criminal courts system.”