The criminal justice system is going into “meltdown” because of coronavirus and a huge backlog of cases caused by government cuts, lawyers have said.
Thousands of hearings have been delayed indefinitely because of the outbreak, which has also sparked the collapse of several high-profile trials, as courts restrict operations to urgent matters.
But official figures show that a backlog of cases waiting to be heard was growing rapidly before coronavirus had an impact.
The number of outstanding cases increased by 13 per cent year-on-year in the last quarter of 2019 to 37,434.
Legal associations blame the rise on reductions to court sitting days to make financial savings.
A spokesperson for the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) told The Independent: “We are really at the point of meltdown and paying the price of years of cuts that began under Chris Grayling and have continued largely unabated since.”
Appearing before the Justice Committee last week, the current justice secretary said he planned to “increase sitting days significantly”.
Robert Buckland admitted that coronavirus was a “different order of magnitude”, adding: “It is my aim to work very closely with the judiciary to make sure we have a recovery plan … it is important that we will be able to return with gusto to making sure we can list cases for trial and deal with what would be quite an alarming backlog if no work was done between now and then.”
The CBA said the original increase of 4,700 crown court sitting days was “derisory” after the government cut 15,100 in the last financial year.
Chair Caroline Goodwin QC accused the Ministry of Justice of making a “shambolic miscalculation” of court capacity even before the coronavirus outbreak.
“The CBA will be holding the justice secretary to his commitment made to parliament this week to fully reopen the courts once the pandemic is over,” she added.
“Justice delayed is justice denied and we all pay the price for unjustifiable delays – defendants, suspects, witnesses, victims of crime and their families alike, let alone the entire criminal legal profession.”
The Law Society said the “whole system is slowing down” with new criminal trials stopped and magistrates’ only handling the most urgent cases, such as terror charges and overnight custody hearings.
Richard Atkinson, co-chair of the Criminal Law Committee, said confusion about what could go ahead was seeing witnesses and defendants crowd into magistrates’ courts for scheduled hearings, only to be turned away.
“The capacity of the courts is physically limited – even if you man every court when this is over you’re still going to have an extended backlog, plus the new stuff coming through,” he told The Independent.
“Full capacity will need to be maintained for a significant period of time in order to get on top of everything. We need a government commitment to an extended period of full resourcing.”
Both the Law Society and CBA raised concern that the lack of current court hearings would put solicitors’ firms and barristers out of business, meaning there will not be enough lawyers to take on the case backlog after the coronavirus outbreak.
More than half of all court and tribunal buildings have been closed, with 157 remaining open for “priority” hearings and others open only to staff to support video and telephone hearings.
The closures are having a knock-on effect on overcrowding in prisons, where there are calls to release vulnerable inmates as the virus spreads.
As of 1pm on Thursday, two inmates with coronavirus had died and 27 had tested positive in 14 jails, as well as five prison staff in five jails and four prisoner escort and custody staff.
The government has so far resisted calls to release vulnerable inmates, and on Wednesday a judge dismissed an application to bail out Julian Assange over the virus.
Officials have “paused” the normal regime in prisons, meaning that inmates are locked up for longer without education, work or rehabilitation programmes.
To avoid the risk of riots, which caused several deaths in Italy, 900 secure mobile phones are being given to prisoners across 55 prisons so they can contact loved ones.
Delays to trials mean that inmates may be held on remand for a longer period than they would serve if convicted of their alleged offence.
Around 3,500 prison staff are in isolation and unable to work, forcing inmates to be locked in their cells for much of the day to maintain control and enforce social distancing.
Terrorists are no longer meeting with ideological mentors who work to decrease the risk they will pose to the public, and group therapy for paedophiles has stopped.
HM Prisons and Probation Service has banned visits and “paused” the normal regime, meaning exercise, education, training and rehabilitative activity has ground to a halt.
And when prisoners are freed, they will not be supervised to the normal standard because of social distancing and staff shortages.
The National Probation Service has around 800 staff in isolation and is switching to “doorstep visits” and video calls rather than face-to-face meetings for all but the most dangerous offenders.
Terrorists and offenders who cannot access a phone will still be met in person, as will all freed prisoners having their initial probation appointment.
Doorstep visits, seeing probation officers stand outside homes and speak to offenders from a distance or on the phone, will be the default option for around 16,000 other high-risk offenders and those with domestic abuse or other safeguarding issues.
Other freed prisoners will be supervised using video and voice calls, which will be conducted more frequently than face-to-face meetings were, and daily calls between probation, police and councils are being held to share intelligence on risk management.
Unpaid work and other programmes imposed as part of community sentences have been stopped.
Mr Buckland has suggested that the lockdown measures imposed over coronavirus would aid risk management.
“Those who don’t observe those constraints will be more noticeable and obvious within our community,” he told MPs.
“I do think that to some degree that will assist us with management of some of the cohort we’re dealing with.”
Coronavirus has forced the Parole Board to stop hearings while it tries to find an alternative to meeting in person, but automatic release from jail continues.
A HM Prison and Probation Service spokesperson said: “Probation officers will continue supervising in person those who pose the highest risk ensuring the monitoring of high-risk offenders remains as tough as it always is. If staff believe it is the right thing to do, offenders can always be recalled to prison.
“At the same time, we will use technology more to supervise lower-risk offenders to reduce the spread of the virus. These measures will be regularly reviewed.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The figures show that waiting times for crown court cases were the lowest ever. The lord chancellor recently increased the number of sitting days to tackle the rise in outstanding cases.”