A cross-system report on the impact of the pandemic on the criminal justice system has starkly spelt out the critical nature of the risks it now faces.
The report followed inspections by all four criminal justice inspectorates, who warned that without government funding the CJS will not recover.
The paper revealed that the cumulative impact of the significant changes to the CJS, both large and small, in light of covid-19 is “clear and profound”, but has not yet been fully felt.
The inspectorates jointly reported “grave concerns that this impact will prove deleterious to victims, witnesses and defendants alike.”
It was revealed that numerous examples of serious cases had been cancelled at short notice, despite the offences taking place a long time before.
Prisoners are locked up most of the day because of covid-19 "to keep prisoners safe".
Though “heartened” at how the CJS coped with the immediate challenges of the pandemic, the report said it was the “unprecedented and very serious court backlogs constitute the greatest risk to criminal justice”.
It warned that the crown court backlogs in particular, and its “profound” ripple effects, must be tackled now; and if they are not, the backlogs will create severe delays and inefficiencies in the system for years to come.
“We have grave concerns that this will be at much personal and organisational cost”, said the report. “The problem is a whole system one, not only a court one.
“It is the responsibility of government to respond on a whole-system basis.”
It said all agencies must “take stock” and work together, but the inspectorates warned that they cannot do this without government funding and other resources to allow the system to recover.
They added: “The need to take urgent and significant action to reduce and eliminate what were already chronic backlogs in cases, and to make sure courts are secure and safe for all who attend and work in them, is urgent.
“Without this, the implications for victims, witnesses, defendants and prisoners are severe.”
Responding to the report, Law Society of England and Wales president David Greene, said: “We agree with the four chief inspectors that, in light of the pandemic, the situation in the criminal justice system is now critical and a whole-system solution is required.
“Given the continuing impact of the pandemic - including the new more easily transmissible Coronavirus variant - we have called for further steps to be taken to make the courts safer for all users.
“The gains sought to be achieved in pressing on regardless will be lost if such measures are not put in place.
“This is likely to lead to yet further delays due to court closures following outbreaks of Coronavirus and due to staff, lawyers, judiciary and parties falling sick.”
As at 13 December 2020, court backlogs included a CPS post-charge caseload 67% higher than the pre-Covid baseline.
The Magistrates’ Court live caseload was 83% higher while the Crown Court trial backlog was 65% higher than it was in February 2020, despite the measures set out in the criminal courts recovery plan.
A CPS spokeperson said: “Safely reducing the backlog of court cases is vital so we can ease pressure on prosecutors and continue to deliver justice. We are working urgently with partners to achieve this.”