The Criminal Justice System is a fundamental tenet of our societal fabric, so interwoven we cannot imagine life without it. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated many pre-existing problems, and the system has reached a breaking point, on the precipice between recovery and irreparable damage.
The case backlog for Crown Courts was reported at 30,000 before the pandemic. That backlog has now reached 56,000 cases as of February 2021. The Government, claiming to be tough on crime, have introduced tougher sentences for several offences. However, harsher sentences are a moot point when the court delays are so extensive that cases are now being timetabled for 2023. Delays of this size are simply unacceptable for both defendants and complainants. Victims must wait years for justice, and defendants wait equally as long with criminal proceedings hanging over their heads. Such extensive delays also affect the reliability of testimonial evidence which can have broader repercussions on the ability to hold a fair trial.
The Secret Barrister, an anonymous junior barrister specialising in criminal law, recently tweeted about a case they are prosecuting involving allegations of serious domestic violence and coercive and controlling behaviour. These offences were reported in 2017 and it then took a further eighteen months for the police to investigate. The Secret Barrister states that this is partly because the case relied on mobile phone evidence as do increasingly many cases. Due to police cuts and lack of funding, there is a backlog of at least twelve months to examine digital devices in most areas of the country. This issue, as with many others within the Criminal Justice System, existed before the pandemic. The Forensic Science Regulator’s annual report for 2018 to 2019 highlighted the digital skills shortage and the risks associated.The then Forensic Science Regulator, Dr Gillian Tully, stated that “The reality is that forensic science has been operating on a knife-edge for years, with particular skills shortages in digital forensics and toxicology.” Yet, despite greater demand, government funding for the regulator was reduced in 2018/19.
Once the Crown Prosecution Service made a charging decision, the Secret Barrister’s case took six months to come to court for the first hearing before the Magistrates Court and was then transferred to the Crown Court. According to the Secret Barrister, in most bail cases, there is a wait of at least a year before a trial slot becomes available. Even before the pandemic, court sitting days were cut by almost 15%, from 97,400 in 2018/19 to 82,500 in 2019/20, and fewer sitting days means greater delays. However, in February 2020, the Ministry of Justice announced that the allocation of court sitting days for the first half of the year 2020/21 was being increased by 4,700 to 87,000 in total. Whilst this increase is positive, the Chair of the Bar, Amanda Pinto QC, responded that “A one-off increase in sitting days will not have the desired effect and we urge the government to monitor the impact of these changes. We anticipate that no less than 5000 Crown Court sitting days in the financial years 2020/21 and 2021/22 are needed to maintain, let alone reduce, the backlog.” This was before the pandemic. Necessary safety measures as a result of Covid-19 have only increased the problem.
Having received a trial slot, the Secret Barrister’s case was adjourned for lack of court time and rescheduled for Summer 2021, four years after the offences were first reported. Although I have spent only a very short time in Crown Courts, the problems highlighted here were immediately evident. Many barristers have openly addressed the issues and the Criminal Bar Association retweeted the Secret Barrister’s Twitter thread outlined here adding, “The whole of the Criminal Justice System requires urgent funding. You can’t claim to be tough on crime but then fail to ensure that victims and defendants can access justice quickly. The CJS [Criminal Justice System] is not a political football. It is fundamental to our society. Fund the system, now.”
One can agree with tougher sentencing and acknowledge that without urgently needed funding, the Criminal Justice System will reach a point of irreparable damage, with court delays so extensive as to be no longer fixable. Though ten Nightingale courts were announced in July 2020, they were plagued with operational issues and faced criticism. Last month, 14 more temporary courtrooms were announced in an effort to further reduce the backlog as part of a £113 million investment. Nevertheless, given that the issues faced by the Criminal Justice System have merely been exacerbated, not caused, by the pandemic, continued future investment and reform is required to repair years of damage. Society relies on the Criminal Justice System to be there, working effectively, when we need it. Without substantial and sustained action, the government runs the risk that this may not be the case.
Image Credit: David Castor