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The impact of COVID-19 on our courts

Criminal court statistics reveal full extent of coronavirus impact.

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Crown court backlog increases by a quarter

The quarterly criminal court statistics published today (24 September) and covering the three months to June 2020 reveal the full extent of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our court system. 

Unsurprisingly, figures dropped to unprecedented levels. Here are the headline findings:

Magistrates’ court: large increase in outstanding cases

Receipts and disposals fell sharply, down 36% and 62% respectively on Q2 2019. As disposals fell by more than receipts, outstanding cases continued to rise, up 44% to around 422,000 cases.

Crown Court: accelerated increase in backlog

In Q2 2020 there were 45% fewer receipts and 50% fewer disposals compared to Q2 2019. The volume of outstanding cases increased by 25%, from 34,277 in Q2 2019 to 42,707 in Q2 2020, continuing increases seen since 2019. The median waiting time for all cases increased to 7.3 weeks, up 38% compared to Q2 2019 (5.3 weeks) but well below the peak seen in 2015 (12.1 weeks).

Enforcement: financial impositions fell

Total financial impositions fell to £54m, down by 65% in Q2 2020 compared with Q2 2019. The total value of outstanding financial impositions remained at £1.2 billion in Q2 2020.

The extent of the drop in activity is clear from the accompanying graphics. 

 

Further detail

Magistrates’ Courts

In Q2 2020 overall receipts and disposals fell sharply on the previous year following the review of court arrangements on the 23rd March 2020.

  • Receipts fell by over a third in Q2 2020 compared to the previous year. This fall can be seen mostly in summary non-motoring (down 67%) and summary motoring cases (down 24%). The volume of receipts for trial cases have tended to remain broadly stable, falling by only 2% compared to Q2 2019.

  • The volume of cases disposed of more than halved in Q2 2020 compared to the previous year. The fall in disposals is seen across all case types, with a 55% fall in trial case disposals. The largest proportionate fall was seen for summary non-motoring cases, down 82% on the previous year, this follows the suspension of Single Justice Procedure work until late-May 2020.

The outstanding caseload at the magistrates’ court increased by 44%, from 292,871 in Q2 2019 to 421,539 in Q2 2020, well beyond the previous quarterly peak (328,291 cases in Q1 2015). The annual increase is true across all case types but the largest proportionate increase was seen in trial cases (up 61% on the previous year).

The statisticians have helpfully included more up-to-date information with data for the week ending 23 August showing that the courts are still operating far below normal capacity but are starting to make a dent in the backlog. Data from that week show that weekly receipts and disposals remain below pre-COVID baselines (down 42% and 38% respectively). However, both have tended to increase since mid-April, with disposals above receipts in August. As such outstanding case volumes have started to reduce from a peak of 525,059 at the end of July to 517,782 at the week ending 23rd August 2020 – remaining 27% higher than a pre-COVID baseline of 407,129.

Crown Courts

On 23rd March 2020 jury trials were suspended and the operational capacity of the court estate was reduced as part of the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The phased reintroduction of jury trials during May 2020 continues, with gradually increasing caseloads at the Crown Court from a low in April 2020.

In Q2 2020, there has been a decrease in both case receipts and disposals, the greater falls seen in disposals compared to receipts has led to the continued increase in outstanding case volumes.

  • The volume of case receipts into the Crown Court fell by 45% compared to the previous year. The fall is true across all case types, with a 36% fall in ‘for trial’ case receipts.

  • Similarly, the volume of disposals halved, from 24,740 cases in Q2 2019 to 12,338 cases in Q2 2020. As with receipts, the fall can be seen across all case types, with 47% decrease in ‘for trial’ disposals.

At the end of Q2 2020 there were 42,707 outstanding cases at the Crown Court, an increase of 25% on Q2 2019 (8,429 cases). This is the highest level of outstanding cases seen since the end of 2016 and continues the consistent increases seen since Q1 2019.

  • The increase can be seen across all case types to varying degrees, with a 29% increase in outstanding ‘for trial’ cases – compared to 6% for sentence cases and 15% for appeals.

  • The increase in ‘for trial’ cases compared with the previous year can be seen across all offence groups to varying degrees, excluding ‘fraud offences’. The largest proportional increases on the previous year were seen for possession of weapons (39%), drug offences (up 35%) and sexual offences (34%).

Conclusion

It is interesting to note that despite these indications of some increase in court activity, the prison population has continued to fall, albeit at a rather gentle rate, confirming that the number of people being released from prison continues to exceed the numbers sentenced or remanded to custody. See my chart at the end of this blog post for details.

 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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