Cases started to pile up from the end of March when the pandemic forced the shutdown of the majority of the court estate and an end to all jury trials.
While courtrooms have gradually been reopened and a small number of trials are being held around the country, Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate today issued a stark warning about the scale of the problems facing the justice system.
“There are real challenges developing which will require a redoubling of commitment to innovation”, the report said. “The backlog of cases in the system is increasing daily. Cases that do come to court are taking hours or days longer than they would under normal circumstances.
“The challenges of social distancing and protecting those in the court environment cannot be underestimated.”
A fierce debate is currently raging on the short-term future of jury trials, amid suggestions that the number of jurors may be cut to nine or seven by the government, or that the jury might be entirely ditched in favour of a streamlined process with just a judge and two magistrates.
Lawyers have come out forcefully against the idea of juryless trials, while efforts are ongoing at the Ministry of Justice to identify empty public buildings such as town halls and leisure centre which could host ad-hoc courts to boost the current capacity.
The inspector’s report noted the “lack of investment in the court estate and a reduction in court funding over the period of austerity have come into stark focus during this pandemic”.
It added: “The public are rightly concerned about how schools may be able to open to all pupils, and how the education of our children can get back to normal as quickly as possible. There are calls to requisition libraries, leisure centres, and village halls to allow for pupils to return. The need of the criminal justice system is going to be on a similar scale.
“Court sittings and courtroom capacity with social distancing requirements will not allow for reduction of the existing backlog. Some estimates show that the current scale of increase in the backlog would take ten years to clear at pre-pandemic rates.
“Any major increase in the time taken to hear cases is likely to be highly detrimental to justice.”
Before the pandemic struck, the Ministry of Justice was under fire for allowing the backlog of cases at the Crown Courts to rise to more than 37,000, with critics blaming underfunding of the system and drastic cuts to judicial sitting days.
A survey by the Criminal Bar Association this week showed 93 per cent of barristers opposed the idea of losing juries from crown court trials, with 95 per cent backing expanding court capacity with ad-hoc courts.
Caroline Goodwin QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said the body is assisting the MoJ in a “massive logistical operation to re-allocate court space across jurisdictions”, as she repeated calls for major reinvestment in the justice system post-coronavirus.
Today’s report from the inspectorate praised the CPS response to the pandemic, noting it had quickly adapted to remote hearings during lockdown and senior managers were ready for the challenges thanks to regular disaster management exercises.
Court staff told inspectors they felt supported by their managers, including with regular communication and updated computer systems, and the risk prosecutors faced by going into courts were apprciated.
Commenting on the report, HM Chief Inspector Kevin McGinty said: “The CPS has played a key role in ensuring that justice has continued to be delivered. It’s encouraging to see staff felt that their safety was a top priority, and they were updated regularly with what was happening and what was required.
“It’s clear that actions the CPS took in creating its 2020 vision allowed them to react in such a way that the pandemic has had a very limited impact on its business.
“I hope that the fervour and innovation that has taken place during the initial response is maintained into and throughout the challenge of recovery.”