Covid backlog has left court system 'in crisis', report warns

30 March 2021, 00:14 | Updated: 30 March 2021, 07:58

The coronavirus pandemic has left the courts system in England and Wales in "crisis"
The coronavirus pandemic has left the courts system in England and Wales in "crisis". Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

The coronavirus pandemic has left the courts system in England and Wales in "crisis" with a backlog of cases that will take years to clear, a parliamentary report has warned.

The Lords Constitution Committee said a decade of cuts meant the courts system was already in a "vulnerable" state when the disease outbreak began last year.

It said the Government must set out urgent plans - including new funding - to deal with the problems if public confidence in the justice system was not to be undermined.

The committee said there was already a backlog of cases in the criminal justice system before the pandemic broke, which had since reached record levels.

It expressed particular concern at the numbers being held on remand with 8,000 adults and 130 children in custody at the end of last year while they awaited trial.

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"Without adequate resources, technology or guidance, our much cherished justice system remains at risk, it said.

"The backlog of cases in the Crown Court, unacceptably high before the pandemic, has now reached crisis levels.

"Not only are victims and defendants waiting several years for their cases to be heard, but the quality of justice is increasingly at risk as witness memories fade over time."

At the same time, the committee said delays in resolving cases in the family courts also risked causing "significant harm" amid official estimates it could take three years to return to pre-pandemic levels.

It sharply criticised the lack of planning for a pandemic saying the courts system had not even featured in Whitehall's Exercise Cygnus in 2016 which simulated a major flu pandemic.

Instead, it said, court buildings were shut down, sitting days were cut and staff numbers reduced.

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Meanwhile, delays to a series of planned upgrades to court IT systems meant they had not been implemented by the time the disease forced the courts to switch to remote hearings.

"It is regrettable that the potential impact of a pandemic on the courts, a crucial public service, was not considered by those responsible for overseeing the justice system," the committee said.

"Had the risk been identified in advance, the urgent need for modernised court IT systems and additional court estate might have been recognised sooner."

In the event, the sudden shift to remote hearings had stretched limited court resources and risked excluding court users.

"Access to justice requires that the protection of the law be accessible to all. There should not be one law for the rich, legally represented or digitally well-furnished, and another for everyone else," the committee said.