Coronavirus outbreak could lead to ‘huge delays’ in court cases, report warns

By Flora Thompson, PA Home Affairs Correspondent
·2-min read

The coronavirus outbreak could lead to “huge delays” in court cases and record prisoner numbers, a think-tank has warned.

Pressure piled on the criminal justice system by the pandemic combined with an anticipated rise in suspects facing charges as a result of the Government’s 20,000 police officer recruitment drive could cause an “unprecedented” backlog of court proceedings, according to the Institute for Government (IfG) and the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa).

Research suggests that waiting times to hear cases could increase by more than 70% in the event of a six-month lockdown, with many defendants and victims forced to wait more than half a year for trials in the crown courts.

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

To resolve the backlog, the think-tank calculates the Government would need to spend an extra £55 million to £110 million a year for two years so the necessary extra trials could take place.

The prison population could rise to 90,000 – its highest-ever level – and possibly more than 95,000 by 2023/24, the report also indicates.

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 news comes 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 do not think the public can currently access justice at an acceptable level, while just 7% said access is acceptable.

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

Rob Whiteman, 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.”