The number of ongoing prosecutions in England and Wales rose by one-third in just three months at the start of lockdown, topping 170,000, new figures show.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was handling almost 171,000 cases by the end of June, up from 109,000 in March, and legal groups have warned of “a cataclysmic backlog of despair for victims, witnesses and suspects alike”.
Officials said that despite the increased use of remote court hearings and the introduction of controversial charging guidance during the pandemic, backlogs had been growing.
The number of cases ending with convictions and sentences fell from 107,500 in the previous quarter to 41,500 between 1 April and 30 June.
The CPS said court closures and a loss of capacity due to social distancing measures when they reopened meant prosecutions were getting stuck in the system.
Despite a significant fall in crime during the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, prosecutors continued to receive thousands of new referrals from police.
The CPS caseload for magistrates’ court almost doubled from 64,000 to 123,000 between March and June, while crown court cases rose from 45,300 to 47,600.
It warned that a “larger increase is likely to be reflected” in figures from June to September as cases progress through the courts.
Rebecca Lawrence, CPS chief executive officer, said: “There is no doubt the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the CPS – particularly the number of prosecutions being finalised – as it has on the entire criminal justice system.
“However, our rapid adoption of technology during lockdown meant we were able to hold steady the number of cases being charged and conduct many more remote hearings than would otherwise have been possible.”
She said prosecutors were working towards “recovery” from coronavirus-related backlogs with the wider criminal justice system.
The CPS has not yet issued details of the impact of a new charging protocol and advice on judging whether a case is in the public interest.
Issued in April, it requires prosecutors to consider the impact of the pandemic when deciding whether charges are in the public interest.
It allows prosecutors to discontinue proceedings or stop cases by offering no evidence against defendants, or accept guilty pleas to some charges — or less serious ones — to avoid trial.
They can also choose to refer cases back to police to be dealt with using fines, cautions or community resolutions, such as meetings with victims and rehabilitation courses, which do not require a court hearing.
The CPS said the change would not affect “most” serious or violent types of crime, which will still be deemed in the public interest to prosecute.
Figures released on Thursday showed that the number of cases dropped between April and June fell overall, but the proportion scrapped for public interest reasons rose by 13 per cent.
Of the 6,000 cases dropped in the period, 38 per cent were for evidential reasons, 35 per cent for public interest reasons and 24 per cent relating to victims and witnesses.
Lawyers have reported trials being scheduled as far away as 2022, amid warnings that the stress caused by long delays may lead increasing numbers of victims to back out.
The court backlog has also caused the government to introduce a controversial law allowing defendants awaiting trial to be held for 238 days – eight months – rather than the current 182, without an extension.
By August, the crown court case backlog stood at 47,300, up from 40,000 in March, and magistrates’ at 444,200, up from 337,600 in March.
James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association said the number of outstanding cases had been rising because of coronavirus and government cuts to court sitting days.
“These unacceptably high numbers of outstanding criminal cases create a cataclysmic backlog of despair for victims, witnesses and suspects alike as trials are routinely put back years past the date of alleged offences,” he added.
He called for the government to speed up the provision of so-called “Nightingale courts”, which allow greater social distancing in alternative buildings, for criminal cases.
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, said: “Law and order means keeping the public safe as well as ensuring access to justice.
“We have seen what lack of funding for law and order achieves – rising crime but low detection rates, long delays to cases, with many collapsing before they get anywhere near a court, and all because government after government has failed to invest in justice.”
Simon Davis, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said that as coronavirus cases continue to rise the government must also ensure the safety of court users.
“Justice is being delayed for victims, witnesses and defendants, who have proceedings hanging over them for months, if not years, with some trials now being listed for 2022,” he added.
Jury deliberations are to be carried out in portable cabins to free up more courtrooms for hearings in Bradford, Hull and Leeds.
More are expected to be set up at more courts across England and Wales in the coming months, and two more Nightingale courts opened in Bristol and Chester this week to bring the total to 14.
The Ministry of Justice said the CPS statistics “inevitably reflect the unique challenge faced by the criminal justice system” but said the department was “to see positive signs” amid urgent cases being prioritised, remote hearings taking place and the addition of Nightingale courts as well as extra staff being recruited as part of an extra £80m of investment.