Public backs virtual trials in England and Wales to ease court case backlog


More than half of people would prefer offenders to be electronically tagged and serve community sentences instead of being jailed for short periods as calls grow for radical reform to ease the huge backlog of court cases.

A survey published on Sunday also found strong public support for virtual court hearings and for certain crimes to be reported online rather than in person or over the phone.

The survey, commissioned by crime and justice consultancy Crest Advisory, suggests the public supports substantial reform to help tackle the unprecedented backlog of court cases that has built up in England and Wales during the pandemic.

However, there was also reluctance to back fundamental changes, with 47% admitting they felt “very” or “fairly uncomfortable” at abolishing jury trials for certain offences.

Last week, a report by four justice chief inspectors for England and Wales said the backlog – there are 54,000 unheard crown courts cases – had “severe implications” for victims.

Possible solutions, says Crest, include devolving prison and probation budgets to metropolitan mayors and greater use of alternatives to prosecution.

One such is the Checkpoint scheme in County Durham, where low-level offenders are diverted away from the criminal justice system and given support to tackle the underlying prompts for their criminality.

However, Crest modelling indicates that Boris Johnson’s drive to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers could backfire by creating more arrests and prosecutions to add to the backlog.

The report also encourages the formation of a new courts watchdog to monitor performance in the same way that probation services and prisons are independently inspected.

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Harvey Redgrave, chief executive of Crest Advisory, said: “Our polling suggests the public do support greater use of digital technology, such as remote hearings, which have grown since the start of the pandemic. The government should prioritise reform in these areas.”

Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester police from 2008 to 2015, said it was “vital the government acted on the recommendations” to avoid more “misery for victims”.

Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, said: “Without sustained and significant investment in the courts system to eliminate chronic backlogs and delays in cases, the implications for victims and witnesses are severe.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said it had increased video technology, opened 36 more Nightingale courtrooms, prioritised urgent cases and was investing £450m to “deliver speedier justice”. They added: “This is already yielding results, with the magistrates’ backlog falling, while the number of cases being dealt with in the crown court reached pre-pandemic levels last month.”



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