Court sitting hours could be extended to help clear Covid cases backlog

Justice minister Chris Philp said the Ministry of Justice is looking at ways to reduce the build-up of cases.

The Scales of Justice
The Scales of Justice

Courts could be made to open for longer in order to help clear the backlog of cases built up during the pandemic, a minister has said.

It comes after a report by four top inspectors in the criminal justice system warned of their “grave concerns” about the situation.

Justin Russell, chief inspector of probation, Sir Thomas Winsor, chief inspector of constabulary, Charlie Taylor, chief inspector of prisons, and Kevin McGinty, chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), issued the warning ahead of being questioned by the Commons Justice Select Committee on Tuesday.

Park Inn Hotel stabbings – Glasgow
Justice minister Chris Philp in the House of Commons (House of Commons/PA)

Responding to an urgent question, justice minister Chris Philp told the Commons that 20,000 remote hearings a week are now taking place in crown courts and magistrates’ courts to help clear the backlog.

He said: “In the first lockdown, and as these measures have been put into place, backlogs have understandably developed. This has been the case across the world. But the fruits of our labours are now being seen.”

Mr Philp added: “We will not rest, we are adding more courtrooms, further increasing remote hearings and examining options for longer operating hours.”

However, Labour’s shadow justice secretary said victims are “being denied the speedy justice that our society owes them”.

David Lammy said: “Estimates show that the current scale in the increase of the backlog will take 10 years to clear at pre-pandemic rates.

“But numbers do not tell the whole story. Behind criminal cases, there are victims. Victims of rape, robbery, domestic abuse and violent assault.

“Each of these victims is being denied the speedy justice that our society owes them.

“It has been repeated many times before but it is true: Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Mr Lammy said the Government’s cuts to the justice system since 2010 have played a part in the current backlog.

He added: “An entire decade of court closures, cuts and reduced sitting days. Blackfriars Crown Court was sold off by the Government in December 2019, it’s now sitting empty but is rented out as a film set by the developer for a new series of Top Boy.”

Sir Robert Neill, chairman of the Commons Justice Select Committee, urged the Government to increase its funding of the justice system for “a number of years to come” to help ease pressures on the courts.

He added: “To make the system sustainable going forward, we are going to need sustained and continued investment at higher levels than we have seen before, for a number of years to come.”

Responding, Mr Philp said: “We do need to have sustained levels of disposals exceeding receipts. We got there just before Christmas for the first time during the pandemic following a heroic effort.

“But it does need to be sustained. We’re making clear that the resources needed to achieve that will be made available.”

In a joint report, the four inspectors spelt out how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the work of police, prosecutors, prisons, probation and youth offending teams.

They concluded that the “unprecedented and very serious court backlogs constitute the greatest risk to criminal justice and the ripple effects across all agencies are profound”.

They pointed to the difficulties and lengthy delays at all stages of the criminal justice system that “benefit no-one and risk damage to many”.

The report highlighted “significant concerns” expressed by police officers and staff at all levels about the effect the backlog was having on victims and witnesses.

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