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All four of Her Majesty’s Justice Chief Inspectors express “grave concerns” about the potential long-term impact of Covid-19-related court backlogs.

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Impact of the pandemic

All four of Her Majesty’s Justice Chief Inspectors have united to express “grave concerns” about the potential long-term impact of Covid-19-related court backlogs on the criminal justice system across England and Wales in a joint report published today. In the report  the Chief Inspectors spell out how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the work of the police, prosecutors, prisons, probation and youth offending teams. 

They point to difficulties and lengthy waits at all stages of the criminal justice process that “benefit no one and risk damage to many”.

The Chief Inspectors highlighted some positive initiatives during the Covid-19 pandemic, including the acceleration of digital working, and praised the commitment of staff.

However, other areas were of more concern, including the lack of education provision in custody and in the community for young people and the highly restrictive regimes for a majority of prisoners which have continued for many months without respite, impacting negatively on their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing and also more generally on prospects for effective rehabilitation.

They conclude the greatest risk to criminal justice comes from the “unprecedented and very serious” backlogs in courts.

The number of ongoing cases in Crown Courts was 44 per cent higher in December 2020 compared to February of the same year. Latest figures show more than 53,000 cases are waiting to come before Crown Courts. Some of these cases have been scheduled for 2022. Despite additional funding, the continuing impact of Covid-19 could cause further delays.

Speaking on behalf of all four inspectorates, Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said: 

“Crown Courts deal with the most serious cases, so this backlog concerns us all. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant severe delays and numerous cancellations throughout 2020, and this has had a negative impact on everyone involved. 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. 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.
Those accused of crimes face delays in their opportunities to defend themselves and seek acquittal. Defendants are kept on remand for longer periods, and prisoners continue to experience a highly restrictive prison regime or experience delays in accessing rehabilitation programmes and support through probation services.
Court backlogs have a ripple effect across all criminal justice agencies and must be dealt with to ensure fair justice for victims and perpetrators of crime. This is a whole-system problem that requires a whole-system solution.”

The four Chief Inspectors – Justin Russell (Probation), Sir Thomas Winsor (Constabulary), Charlie Taylor (Prisons) and Kevin McGinty (Crown Prosecution Service) – have either published or are due to publish separate reports into how each respective service coped with the pandemic.

Today’s publication brings together those findings and identifies cross-cutting themes.

The Chief Inspectors recognised the initial response to the pandemic was “swift and pragmatic”, and paid tribute to staff across all services for their commitment.

The four Chief Inspectors are calling for criminal justice agencies to work closely together to respond to the pandemic, and for the Government to provide national direction as well as the funding, time and access to expertise to help recovery.

They will also give evidence to the House of Commons’ Justice Committee in a joint session this afternoon (19 January).

COVID-19 lockdown

Staff wellbeing

The report includes a short section on the impact of the pandemic on staff across the main criminal justice agencies. All agencies were clear that staff health, wellbeing and safety were paramount. For police and prisons, this was more difficult to manage as the need to provide frontline services on a large scale without the ability to work virtually meant that some staff had to continue to attend work in person (during a time when the impact of catching the virus was very much unknown). The inspectorates found:

  • The police adapted well to the change in demand and the necessity to change working practices, although there were initial difficulties in identifying and sourcing the right personal protective equipment.
  • The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)’s principal objective, as well as continuity of service, was staff wellbeing. Many staff said that the values of the CPS were obvious throughout, and that the reaction to the crisis has been a clear demonstration of the commitment of the CPS to staff wellbeing.
  • Most probation and youth offending service staff have felt supported by their leaders and managers. Some organisations had made hardship funds available. Additionally, the level of both formal and informal peer support was outstanding.

The report does not comment specifically on the experience of prison staff but acknowledges that across the system,  even for those who could work at home, this was sometimes a difficult experience. Homeworking did not suit everyone; some people struggled to align home schooling and caring commitments with the demands of their work.

Service user experience

The report also sheds light on the impact of service users at different points in the criminal justice system.

For those reporting crimes, a typical person would be:

  • more likely to report it online
  • more likely not to be visited in person by the police
  • more likely to have a telephone or video call to discuss the incident, take statements and complete crime reports
  • more likely to have the case resolved through an out of court disposal
  • more likely to see the suspect released under investigation instead of bailed
  • less likely to have their case prioritised for charging decisions by the CPS, unless it was a Covid-19/custody one.
  • more likely to have a long wait for a court date.

People in or leaving prison would typically have the following experiences.

  • During the first few months of the pandemic, only the most fundamental aspects of prison life were maintained: the provision of food, medication, showers and daily exercise. This was generally achieved by unlocking prisoners for a short period of time each day. Some prisoners were held in conditions which effectively amounted to solitary confinement, which was sometimes prolonged and/or indefinite.
  • Offending behaviour programmes were cancelled, preventing prisoners from progressing their sentences. From July, inspectors found substantial waiting lists for some programmes in some establishments. From late August 2020, offender behaviour programmes remained suspended at most prisons, but some establishments that inspectors had visited had recently begun to develop interventions, which was welcomed.
  • Most workshop and training activities ceased altogether initially, and many were only recommenced on a part-time basis in the autumn. In prisoner surveys which took place from July to December 2020, only 11% of prisoners who responded said it was easy to access vocational or skills training.
  • Releases on temporary licence were mostly suspended, as were progressive transfers between prisons.
  • There was limited rehabilitation available in the community. Public protection work was prioritised, with less done to address the underlying causes of offending. Provision of accredited programmes fell to under 10% of usual levels.

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