19:16, April 28 101 0 theguardian.com

2020-04-28 19:16:03
Coronavirus could cause 'unprecedented' backlog of court cases

The coronavirus outbreak could lead to court case delays of up to six months and record prisoner numbers once the lockdown has been lifted, according to a leading Whitehall thinktank.

Pressure on the criminal justice system from the pandemic combined with an anticipated rise in suspects facing charges could cause an “unprecedented” backlog of court proceedings in England and Wales, the Institute for Government (IfG) said.

Working alongside the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa), researchers said waiting times to hear cases could increase by more than 70% after a six-month lockdown, with many defendants and victims forced to wait more than half a year for crown court trials.

This could result in the highest average waiting time ever recorded, the IfG said.

To resolve the backlog, the thinktank calculates the government would need to spend an extra £55m to £110m a year for two years so the extra trials could take place.

Although there has been a recent dip in the prison population because courts have been suspended and prisoners released, researchers found that the government’s plans to increase police numbers by 20,000 would rapidly increase the numbers arrested, charged and imprisoned.

Q&A

What are the UK government's 'five tests' for ending lockdown restrictions?

The UK government has said that these five tests have to be met before they will consider easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions:

  • The NHS has sufficient capacity to provide critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK
  • A sustained and consistent fall in daily deaths from Coronavirus
  • Reliable data to show that the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels across the board
  • Operational challenges including testing and personal protective equipement (PPE) are in hand with supply able to meet future demand
  • Confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS

Researchers said the population in prisons could rise to 90,000 – its highest-ever level – and possibly more than 95,000 by 2023-24.

Prisons in England and Wales are already close to capacity, with cases of violence and self-harm increasing sharply over the last decade.

The government’s pledge to provide 10,000 additional prison places is unlikely to be ready to meet the predicted rise in prisoner numbers. An extra £250m a year of spending would be required just to maintain current levels of performance in prisons, the report said.

The IfG programme director, Nick Davies, who wrote the report, said: “Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the government’s pledge to increase police officer numbers could have resulted in courts and prisons being overwhelmed by an increase in cases.

“The effect of the coronavirus outbreak now means that there will also be huge delays in cases reaching courts – and therefore justice delayed – without more spending.”

The report came as barristers warned that public access to justice is being hindered by the crisis.

Three-quarters (75%) of more than 3,400 barristers surveyed by the Bar Council said they did not think the public can currently access justice at an acceptable level, while just 7% said access was acceptable.

The body calculated that, of the self-employed barristers polled, 65% had seen a reduction in work.

Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of Cipfa, said: “A decade of austerity has meant that finance professionals in the criminal justice system have had to change nearly every aspect of how they manage their budgets.

“The measures that have been taken in this area to fight Covid-19 will only exacerbate these pressures, particularly if we see an increase in demand. Throughout this crisis, government has stressed the need for policy decisions to be guided by evidence.

“We would encourage stronger adoption of this approach when it comes to medium- to long-term financial planning, both for the criminal justice system, and public services at large.”

Topics