Warnings of case backlog threatening criminal justice system in England and Wales
Four criminal justice watchdogs for England and Wales have warned of their “grave concerns” surrounding the court backlogs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are currently 54,000 unheard cases in the Crown Court, where the more serious cases are tried. This means that some cases from 2020 will not go before a jury until 2022, which will have serious consequences for the criminal justice system.
In general, court work has slowed in the pandemic, which means that the total criminal backlog is more than 457,000 cases, 100,000 more than pre-pandemic. Most of these cases are less serious, so can go to the Magistrates Court, which is faster. However, 15% of the prison population are awaiting trials, while education programs are restricted due to pandemic restrictions. These education programs are vital in supporting the rehabilitation of offenders, especially young offenders.
Some courts have been able to adapt to the public health guidelines, and some trials have been able to go ahead. At the Old Bailey, a trial used two courtrooms connected via a video link to meet guidelines, a method which could be used by other courthouses. The Bar Council has called for the creation of “Nightingale courts” to help with the demand caused by the pandemic, and an investment of £55m for staff, and legal aid for domestic abuse cases.
The backlog can have serious consequences for the passage of justice, and all those involved. Witnesses could forget what happened or drop out, victims are more likely to withdraw cases, and legal counsel could spend time on a case that never goes ahead. Defendants facing delayed trials also have to wait longer to be able to defend themselves and could be imprisoned for extended periods of time before trial.
The House of Commons’ justice committee is meeting on Tuesday, where a presentation from four chief inspectors about the problem will take place.
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