There is currently grave concern for the huge backlog of court cases across the UK going unheard due to the Covid 19 pandemic. The criminal justice system is struggling to bear the weight due to operating under a significantly reduced rate during lockdown. Concerns have been raised that some cases may not even be heard until 2022. As the country moves into the phase of looking to the future and planning for the aftermath of the pandemic, it is clear that the effects on the criminal justice system, and in turn victims, will be lengthy and costly.
In quarter four of 2019-20, there were 90,959 convictions which subsequently fell to 32,331 in quarter one of 2020-21, revealing a dramatic decrease of 64.5% in volume of convictions. The rate of convictions also fell by 84.6% in the same time period. The criminal justice system has operated with priorities being given to more serious live cases, and the use of audio and video technology in courts has been accelerated in order to enable remote court hearings. But the Magistrates Court have continued to receive court receipts throughout lockdown despite the limited court capacity, which has led to the overwhelming number of cases in waiting. The Magistrates Court is staring at a total of 170,000 outstanding cases at the end of quarter one 2020-21, making the justice process become stagnant and for many, dormant.
In their report published in January 2021, the Criminal Justice Chief Inspectors warned:
However, whilst it is undeniable that the justice sector has suffered hugely at the hands of Covid19, many who work in the profession would argue that the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for much needed reform. It will also become essential for the courts to prioritise some cases over others. The government has announced in the Criminal Courts Recovery Plan an investment of £142 million to advance the use of technology and help modernise the courtrooms. For what is still considered a very traditional, and almost archaic establishment, the criminal justice system will be forced to update and as a result, offer a more effective service by being more ‘in touch’ with the modern speed and benefits of technology. Just as the NHS was forced to open temporary hospitals to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the sheer volume of covid-19 patients, the criminal justice system has equally resorted to ‘nightingale courts’ to help reduce the pressure on the system and increase the number of cases being processed. There are currently 56 nightingale courtrooms across the UK, with more expected to open. The legal sector will certainly not be short of work in the upcoming months. It is this kind of response which is necessary and will rescue the justice system from failing to secure justice for victims across the country.
Whilst the national lockdown may have meant that the overall rate of crime fell, with the Office for National Statistics estimated a 32% reduction, other areas of crime such as domestic abuse and online fraud experienced notable increases. During the pandemic, the police recorded 259,324 offences in domestic abuse, and domestic abuse services reported significant increases, highlighting the grave social implications of the pandemic.
The recovery of the criminal justice system must be a priority for the government, to ensure that victims receive appropriate justice, and the system gets back on its feet. A well-functioning criminal justice system is the prime prerequisite for a functioning democracy.