(Bloomberg) -- The UK criminal court system, suffering from years of underfunding, has the highest backlog of unheard cases on record undermining government efforts to reverse a trend that’s spiraled in recent years. 

The National Audit Office said Friday that Ministry of Justice policies aimed at reducing the Crown Court bottleneck of 67,573 cases to 53,000 by March 2025 is no longer achievable. Outstanding cases are currently 78% higher than they were in 2019, and 11% higher than they were in 2021.

“The Crown Court sat for over 107,000 days last year, more days than at any point in the last seven years,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said. “We are also investing more in the system, rolling out remote hearings, and recruiting hundreds of judges to get victims the justice they deserve and put more offenders behind bars.”

A broad range of factors have led to severe delays in trials — they include long a tail of pandemic-related delays and high rates of ineffective trials that often collapse, according to the the UK’s public spending watchdog. The sector has also been hit by a funding crisis that’s led to basic building services failing, a shortage of court staff as well as strikes by trial lawyers over low pay.

“This report again highlights how the criminal justice system is at the point of structural failure,” said Sam Townend, Chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales. “One of the important reasons is the shortage of criminal barristers due to poor working conditions and insufficient pay. The next government needs to step up to the plate.”

With almost a fifth of the cases currently waiting trial being sexual offenses, delays are worsening the toll of going through a case on victims and witnesses, as well a increasing the risk of cases collapsing. On average it takes 683 days from offense to a case completing at the Crown Court, the watchdog said.

“Over a quarter of the backlog cases have been waiting a year or more to be heard,” the NAO said. Delays increase the risk of cases collapsing because “victims and witnesses may withdraw from proceedings, or their recollection of evidence declines over time.”

(Updates with comment from the Bar Council in the fifth paragraph)

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