Charlie Chirico is a criminal lawyer, former Conservative councillor, former Police and Crime Commissioner candidate, and 2017 parliamentary candidate.
Whilst court backlogs and delays caused by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic are not an attractive policy area, it has to be our number one priority for policing and crime.
Community safety is a key manifesto commitment. We have to question how safe our communities feel when cases take so long to reach a resolution in court and the backlog is so vast. A victim of crime who reported a serious incident in 2019 may still be waiting for the trial. Crown Court trial dates are being set for 2024 and beyond. Meanwhile, defendants are out in the same community, with or without bail conditions, waiting for judgement. Even if the defendant is remanded in custody awaiting trial, the effect on the taxpayer is astronomical given that one average annual prison place costs £37,000, worsened by a 27 per cent increase in defendants held in custody between 31 March 2020 and 30 June 2021.
With the overwhelming impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, cases have been further delayed. In the 15-month period that followed the start of the pandemic, there was a 48 per cent increase in the Crown Court backlog. The National Audit Office’s 2021 report stated: “Despite efforts to increase capacity in criminal courts, it looks likely that the backlog will remain a problem for many years. The impact on victims, witnesses, and defendants is severe.”
The effect on victims of crime is serious. Firstly, memories can worsen with time. The details a party recalls at the time of an incident can fade as months and years pass, even with the assistance of memory refreshing permitted under section 120 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Secondly, victims can lose interest in pursuing matters with each day that elapses. Finally, victims may lose faith in the criminal justice system altogether, caught up in the seemingly endless backlog.
As a former District Crown Prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), even before the pandemic severe delays were prevalent. Anyone who has had experience of the criminal justice system, including many of our Conservative councillors who sit as Lay Magistrates, can vouch for this. Often victims attend court with an expectation that their case will be heard only to be informed that the case has been adjourned. I have lost count of how many times I have delivered this news. In my view, there should be a no adjournment policy. Far too many cases reach the low bar for an adjournment.
The responsibility for backlogs cannot be solely directed at our statutory agencies. Many struggle to retain staff, with lack of pay rises and decades of under-funded budgets. Employees are being asked to do more for less. Court staff consistently sit late for trials to conclude. CPS lawyers and Prison and Probation staff have high-volume and unmanageable caseloads; a situation which has been exacerbated by cost cutting measures, including the closure of nearly 300 Magistrates Court Centres since 1997 and the significant reduction of Lay Magistrates sitting. Further financial and flexible working incentives are required for these key workers and there should be a moratorium on court closures. The system would also benefit from further recruitment of volunteer Lay Magistrates to cut through the backlog.
The current digitalisation needs major intervention. Most court centres hold digital hearings which rely on digital technology and effective court user input. In my experience, this causes as many delays as it is said to solve. Proper training of users and further testing of the technology is key to ensuring it is properly reliable. In addition, the Common Platform, a digital platform used by professional stakeholders to obtain case material, has suffered severe failings. Proper scrutiny to avoid further resource wastage, with a fresh assessment of how it does contribute to better case management is essential.
Renewed hope has been provided by the recent appointment of Dominic Raab as our Justice Secretary. Raab has direct experience of working as a civil service lawyer and has the political gravitas to lead on key dynamic changes desperately needed in this broken system. Our dedicated Police and Crime Commissioners play a pivotal role in local progress as chairs of their local criminal justice boards. They steer local priorities with key partners but within national constraints of a centralised criminal justice system. I would advocate for further local powers to meet local needs; a one size fits all approach does not work.
Whilst there is never going to be a magical solution, victims must understand the full implications from the outset. By continuing to support our victims of crime through this challenging time, we can at least attempt to uphold the integrity of our manifesto commitments.