The number of people being prosecuted or handed out-of-court disposals fell by 22% in a year as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, official figures show.
There were around 1.19 million people formally dealt with by the criminal justice system in England and Wales between October 2019 and September 2020 (1,188,832) compared with more than 1.5 million for the previous period (1,525,107), the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said.
The latest quarterly data confirms the impact the outbreak had on the courts when they were forced to shut as the country went into lockdown.
By the last quarter of the period, the numbers had shot back up 64% (290,252, up from 176,586 three months earlier), the department said, reflecting the easing of restrictions throughout the summer when courts had started to reopen and were carrying out socially distanced hearings, with others being conducted online.
The figures published on Thursday also show a 25% drop in the number of offenders convicted during the period (881,986, down from 1,189,903 a year earlier) and a similar fall in the number of people sentenced (880,513, compared with 1,187,624).
The MoJ document said: “The figures published today highlight the impact on criminal court prosecutions and convictions of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Latest short-term trends are mostly reflective of the impact of the pandemic on court processes and prioritisation rather than a continuation of the longer-term series.
“The monthly data shows that following the sharp falls in prosecutions and convictions immediately following the March 2020 ‘lockdown’, these have recovered by September 2020, although not quite to pre-pandemic levels.”
Custody rates and average sentence lengths both increased overall, according to the document, which added: “For custody rates, this is likely to partially reflect the prioritisation in courts of more serious offences since April 2020 – meaning a greater concentration of court time for offences more likely to get a prison sentence.
“The increase in average sentence lengths continues the trend of the last 10 years, and it is less clear from the monthly data what impact, if any, the pandemic may have had.”
Criminal courts have made “further good progress” since the period covered by the data with more rooms now open for trials and extra Nightingale courts to increase capacity, a MoJ spokesman said, adding that the Government was “investing hundreds of millions to deliver swifter justice and support victims”.