As we approach the anniversary of the first national lockdown in the UK, which came into effect on the 23rd March 2020, COVID-19 continues to have a considerable impact on the delivery, and the pace of delivery, of a whole host of public services – with the justice sector particularly feeling the strain.
Last month, the backlog of cases due to be heard in the Crown Courts stood at 56,000, up from approximately 40,000 just twelve months ago. In response, four criminal watchdogs - the inspectorates for policing, prisons, probation and prosecutions - highlighted their “grave concerns” and admitted that this situation could damage the criminal justice system for years.
The knock-on effects on the Crown Court backlog
Justin Russell, the chief inspector of probation, said: "Crown courts deal with the most serious cases, so this backlog concerns us all. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant severe delays and numerous cancellations throughout 2020, and this has had a negative impact on everyone involved.
"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. 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,” he added.
It has been recently announced that some cases have already been timetabled for 2023, whilst the Guardian reported that there are “concerns that years of cuts to the courts system are now not only leaving victims and defendants in limbo for long periods, but also affecting the punishments being handed out”.
Working through the backlog: virtual hearings and social distancing
During November’s Modernising Criminal Justice 2020 event, Gemma Hewison, Strategy & Change Director for HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), updated the audience on “court reform and the challenge of COVID-19 on the criminal courts”, which included (figures correct as of November 2020):
- Plexiglass installed in 203 courtrooms and 107 deliberation rooms
- All open courts having the capability to conduct video hearings
- 16 Nightingale Courts open, providing 29 extra court rooms
- 1,600 additional staff recruited to support for video hearings
Whilst speaking with BBC Breakfast last Friday (26th February), The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland QC, highlighted the progress that has been made in the months since. He explained he is “investing unprecedented amounts of money into scaling up the capacity of our courts”. He added that a significant amount of work had been undertaken to ensure trials can resume safely, in light of social distancing, and that there’s now over 250 courts that are active and hosting jury trials. The Justice Secretary added that 50 Nightingale Courts are now up and running, which will increase to 60 by the end of March – “many of which will be doing criminal cases”.
It is hoped that these measures, alongside the continued use of virtual court rooms, will see the backlog begins to shrink over the coming months, especially in light of the continued success of the vaccine rollout, however the challenge remains substantial.
Later this month, we will be exploring the rise of remote and hybrid trials and what role this technology may play in a post-COVID world. Subscribe to our blog to receive useful reminders regarding our latest content.
Kevin Sadler CBE, Acting Chief Executive and Board Member, Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) will be delivering a presentation at the Modernising Criminal Justice 2021 virtual conference on the 23rd June. He will discuss lessons learnt during the pandemic and explore the next steps for the HMCTS in its £1bn court reform programme.
Jessica Kimbell, GovNet