THE pandemic has caused a sharp rise in the backlog of crown court cases, with Newcastle leading in the North East with over 1,600 cases still waiting to be heard, an SR News investigation has found.
DATA from freedom of information request (FOI) shows how in January 2020, Newcastle Crown Court had 1,266 outstanding cases, but in September the cases were 1,639. The situation in Teesside was similar – cases went from 691 in January to 857 in September – while in Durham, the number of outstanding cases remained stable at 270.
Due to the impact of the pandemic, the Ministry of Justice has delayed the publication of updated end-to-end criminal court timeliness. Until September 2019, the average length of cases dealt with by crown courts in the Northumbria Police area was 553 days. As a result of Covid restrictions, cases could take even longer to be heard, with a huge impact on victims, witnesses and defendants.
But, as highlighted by chief inspectors in the report on the impact of Covid-19 on the criminal justice system: “The system was already facing significant failings. The pandemic has intensified these. All sectors were already fragmented and significantly under-resourced. They now need to catch up on any backlogs built up through the pandemic, while also responding to new demands – and doing so in a way that responds to changing Covid restrictions and regulations. Without resources, time and support, this risk is proving an impossible task.
“Our greatest concern, however, remains the situation in courts, and the consequential effect this has on all our inspected sectors. The need to take urgent and significant action to reduce and eliminate what were already chronic backlogs in cases, and to make sure courts are secure and safe for all who attend and work in them, is urgent. Without this, the implications for victims, witnesses, defendants and prisoners are severe.”
Northumbria’s criminal justice partners restarted crown court hearings at the beginning of September, gradually working on clearing the backlogs. Several changes have been made at various stages, including police taking electronic statements from witnesses to minimise physical contact.
New audio and video systems have also been introduced in courts and at police stations to allow some remand hearings to be heard via video-link and Perspex screens have been installed between seats and in the jury box.
Commenting on the criminal justice inspection and the system backlogs, Diana Fawcett, Victim Support’s chief executive, said: “The findings of the report are damning and paint a picture of a justice system that is facing a crisis point. For years, even before the pandemic, we knew first-hand from victims that the system wasn’t working.
“This has left many victims feeling that their life has been put on hold or that justice is not served. We are also worried that some victims will lose confidence in the justice system and drop out of the process, or be unwilling to engage again in future.”