The temporary closure of youth courts due to Covid-19 has almost doubled the backlog of cases in some areas of England and Wales, increasing anguish for traumatised victims and creating more uncertainty for accused children, inspectors have found.
The closures meant that some children have spent longer on remand than would normally be expected, with the proportion of children held in youth custody pre-conviction increasing from about a quarter to 38%, according to a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP).
“As we face new local and regional restrictions, the ability to have remand cases heard and bail packages offered to courts will need to be carefully managed to avoid children spending time in custody unnecessarily,” the report warns.
This week the chair of the Criminal Bar Association in England and Wales told the Guardian that the criminal justice system was “on its knees” as Covid exacerbated delays caused by a decade of cuts.
James Mulholland QC said: “We have 17-year-olds who are not going to be tried until 2023. Will they have to spend their youth waiting for an outcome that will impact their whole life?”
Children and young people are supposed to be prioritised within the criminal justice system so that their cases are heard promptly.
But the HMIP report found that by the end of June 2020, the backlog of children awaiting court in England and Wales had increased by 55% compared with the same period in the previous year.
There was considerable regional variation between court areas. Yorkshire and Humberside had the smallest increase, at 33%, while south London had the largest increase, at 97%.
The report warns that there is likely to be a “sharp increase in court-related work for youth offending teams as the backlogs are addressed and children released under investigation are charged.”
It also found that children in the criminal justice system suffered because of insufficient access to computers and mobile phones during the pandemic. In the sample of 70 cases examined by the inspectors, just over half (53%) of the children had access to internet-enabled technology.
“Some families did not have computers. We came across examples where the only device in the house was a smartphone, which had to be shared between parents trying to work and children trying to download and research school work or keep in touch with their youth offending team worker,” the report says.
Peter Kyle, the shadow minister for victims and youth justice, said: “The shocking increase in the youth court backlog exposes the government’s shambolic handling of the criminal justice system.
“Delays at youth courts mean many months more anguish for traumatised victims, and more uncertainty for accused children. “A decade of Tory cuts and closures left our youth courts on the brink of collapse even before the crisis began. The Tories must come up with an urgent strategy to make sure justice can be served.”