Urgent action is needed to tackle an “unprecedented backlog” of court cases built up during the pandemic that has “severe implications” for victims, the UK’s four justice chief inspectors have warned.
The plight of prisoners locked up for most of the day because of Covid-19 and disruption to services for young offenders were also highlighted in a report by the inspectors of probation, police, prisons and the Crown Prosecution Service.
They expressed “grave concern” in particular about the situation in courts – already struggling with a “chronic backlog” of cases – which they said constituted the greatest threat to the proper operation of the criminal justice system.
“Delays mean victims must wait longer for cases to be heard; some will withdraw support for prosecutions because they have lost faith in the process,” said Justin Russell, the chief inspector of probation, speaking on behalf all four inspectors.
“Witnesses will find it difficult to recall events that took place many months ago, and prosecutors waste significant periods of time preparing for cases that do not go ahead.”
Those accused of crimes also faced delays in their opportunities to defend themselves while defendants were kept on remand for longer periods.
The number of ongoing cases in crown courts was 44% higher in December 2020 compared with February, while the latest figures show more than 53,000 cases are waiting to come before crown courts. Some of these cases have been scheduled for 2022.
While inspectors said they were heartened the criminal justice system (CJS) had coped “reasonably well” with the immediate challenges of the pandemic, court closures and social distancing had added to the pressures.
While the recorded numbers of most types of crime fell in March last year, they rose to pre-pandemic levels during the summer.
The four chief inspectors, who will give evidence to the House of Commons’ justice committee on Tuesday, have called on the government to provide additional funding and direction to agencies.
Pressure for more funding to help Covid-stricken courts also came from the Bar Council, which called separately for the creation of dozens of additional “Nightingale courts” to help with demand during the pandemic, investment of £55m to recruit and retain staff, and for non-means-tested legal aid to be made available for all domestic abuse cases.
A government spokesperson said the chief inspectors had recognised the swift and unprecedented work that had kept the justice system moving.
“These efforts have allowed us to rapidly increase the use of video technology, establish 36 ‘Nightingale’ courtrooms and prioritise urgent cases to protect the public from dangerous criminals, while we were one of the first countries in the world to resume jury trials,” the spokesperson said.
An investment of £450m to boost recovery in the courts was already yielding results as the backlog in magistrates courts continued to fall and crown court cases reached pre-pandemic levels last month, they added.