No Justice: COVID Backlog in Our Courts

Charlie Harris discusses the crisis facing Crown Courts as a result of COVID-19 and the effects this is having on the judicial system.

At every point during the pandemic, this Government has refused to treat serious cases with the urgency that they deserve. Instead, the same lethargic and irreverent approach that characterised the rollout of free school meals and crucial communications over new COVID restrictions has become the norm. The number of trials being carried out in our Crown Courts were down nearly 75% in September from the same period in 2019, meaning the number of people receiving justice in our courts is also down. For victims of crime, this is unacceptable. For victims of crime, more must be done.

The Labour Party has an important role to play in making sure that the urgent needs of those who are being failed by our justice system are met.

Put simply, the criminal justice system is no longer functioning. Last December, it emerged that only 1,654 Crown Court trials had taken place between July and September 2020. Again, this is down nearly 75% from the 6,249 trials listed over the same period in 2019. Victims, including teenagers, are having to wait up to four years from the time of an offence to the case reaching crown court trial because of these delays. Alongside this, solicitors and barristers face longer working hours for less money because of new procedures.

According to the Ministry of Justice:

  • The number of outstanding crown court cases has risen to 53,318.
  • The caseload in the magistrates’ court is above 412,093.
  • These figures represent an increase of over 40% from the previous year.

It is important, however, that this crisis does not become solely about quantities and percentages. Gridlock in our courts will affect huge numbers of individuals seeking justice, as well as those facing criminal charges. We are facing a situation in which victims, defendants, and witnesses will have to answer questions over incidents that took place as early as 2017 in trials listed as late as 2023. At that point, they cannot be reasonably expected to give accurate testimony. This not only delays the rule of law but will also undermine it. The parties involved in these pending trials, many of which deal with violent or sexual offences, can hardly be expected to go about their lives as normal, knowing that these cases remain unresolved.

The mental health costs of this pandemic are still not fully known. If justice does not play its crucial role in recovery, we risk exacerbating this crisis further.

According to evidence provided by London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA), these outstanding cases include:

  • January 2018: An alleged serious sexual offence from involving a teenage victim. The court case started in early 2020, with trial now due February 2022.
  • September 2017: An alleged five-person affray in south London captured on CCTV. Although defendants arrested soon after charges not authorised until April 2020. No trial date set.
  • September 2018: An alleged assault. Defendant not charged until a year later. Trial now listed for June 2022.
  • December 2018: Defendant on bail for alleged possession with intent to supply class A drugs. Court trial listed for summer 2022.
  • 2018: Trial on a charge of allegedly possessing an offensive weapon now scheduled for August 2022 at east London court.

It is worth pointing out that some action has finally been taken by the Ministry of Justice, who claim the backlog of cases is beginning to reduce. As of December, it has created 40 emergency Nightingale courtrooms and installed plexiglass screens in a further 400.

However, this is simply not enough. Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary, David Lammy, has accused the Government of, ‘dithering throughout the Spring,’ over Nightingale courts whose rollout he considers having been too slow. His assertion is, unfortunately, borne out by the facts.

The lord chief justice of England and Wales has stated that tackling the disruption in our courts will cost more than the £500m promised by the Treasury. The courts have been chronically underfunded by this Government since 2010 due to the repeated attacks on public services by successive Conservative chancellors.

So, what should the Labour Party do to force this Government to act? Firstly, we must ensure that the financial aid offered to the courts does not end with this payment of £500m. Secondly, we must push for the continued rollout of Nightingale courts to accelerate the processing of trials. Finally, we must push for the ring-fencing of funding for our courts, not simply relying on aid whenever there is an emergency.

Like all things, our justice system has been disrupted by COVID-19. But make no mistake, the pandemic is not solely responsible for this crisis. It was not only this Government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic, but the ten years of cuts to public spending and closures to our courts that brought us here.


Charlie Harris is a freelance writer. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, constitutional reform, and international relations. He tweets at @cmdharris.

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