Serious criminals escaping justice as victims pull out of cases due to court delays

Bizar Male

Serious criminals are escaping justice because victims are pulling out of cases due to “unprecedented and severe” delays in court cases, the four criminal justice chief inspectors have warned in their first-ever joint report.

The chief inspectors, who cover all aspects of criminal justice, said the courts system is in such a “critical” state due to the Covid pandemic that it may be “impossible” to catch up on case backlogs that are already delaying trials until 2022.

“It means that people are not going to be brought to justice for serious offences,” said Justin Russell, speaking for the chief inspectors of police, prisons, prosecutors and probation, who will give evidence to the Commons justice committee on Tuesday.

“You are talking about Crown Court trials. Those are more serious offences. It means offenders are potentially getting away with it. That has to be a concern for everyone.”

The number of ongoing cases in Crown Courts was up 66 per cent on February, with a backlog of more than 53,000 cases and the prospect of further delays with the continuing impact of Covid.

“Delays mean victims must wait longer for cases to be heard – some will withdraw support for prosecutions because they have lost faith in the process,” said Mr Russell, the chief inspector of probation. “Witnesses will find it difficult to recall events that took place many months ago, and prosecutors waste significant periods of time preparing for cases that do not go ahead.”

In their report, the four chief inspectors warned that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) backlog had increased by 67 per cent to 169,419 cases, which they said would be “impossible” to clear without extra resources, time and support.

“Our greatest concern, however, remains the situation in courts and the consequential effect this has on all our inspected sectors,” they said. “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.

“We have each, as independent chief inspectors, commented in the past on the risks of chronic and systemic under-resourcing across the CJS. As a chief inspectors’ group, we now consider that Covid-19 has resulted in these risks becoming critical.”

The other inspectors are Sir Thomas Winsor (constabulary), Charlie Taylor (prisons) and Kevin McGinty (Crown Prosecution Service). They also warned that lockdown in prisons, where offenders are spending up to 23 hours a day in their cells, was damaging mental health.

They said that, during lockdown, victims of crime were more likely to see the perpetrator let off with an “out of court disposal”, more likely to see them released under investigation than bailed, less likely to have their case prioritised for charging by the CPS and more likely to have a long wait for a court date.

The Chief Inspectors rightly recognise the swift and unprecedented work that has kept the justice system moving in the face of the pandemic.

The Ministry of Justice said: “These efforts have allowed us to rapidly increase the use of video technology, establish 36 Nightingale courtrooms and prioritise urgent cases to protect the public from dangerous criminals, while we were one of the first countries in the world to resume jury trials.

“In recognition of the scale of the challenge we face, the Government is investing £450m to boost recovery in the courts and deliver swifter justice, and this is already yielding results – the magistrates’ backlog continues to fall and Crown Courts cases reached pre-pandemic levels last month.”

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