UK criminal justice creaking under ‘unacceptable’ levels of delay

Criminal justice is “delayed, denied or disrupted in far too many instances” in England and Wales following the pandemic even as crime rates rise overall, according to HM chief inspectors.

In a report on the impact of Covid-19, the Criminal Justice Joint Inspection found that the justice sector was under-resourced at the outset of the coronavirus crisis and still struggling to recover with “some parts operating at unacceptable levels”.

“Prisoners still spend 22.5 hours a day in their cell; hundreds of thousands of hours of unpaid work go uncompleted in the probation service; and crown court backlogs remain high,” concluded the report published on Tuesday.

Overall crime increased by 2 per cent in the year to September 2021 but was up 14 per cent compared to pre-pandemic levels. The rise in reported crimes was fuelled by a big increase in fraud and cyber crime, while rapes and sexual offences rose to their highest level recorded by the police in a 12-month period.

Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, said that decades of underfunding meant there were not enough judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers left to cover the backlog of cases.

“Without that bare minimum, court backlogs will inevitably endure, solicitors will continue to leave the profession in droves and we will no longer have a criminal justice system worthy of the name,” she said.

The report found that the police had made progress towards meeting the government’s aim of restoring officer numbers to 2010 levels, with 11,053 new recruits out of a target of 20,000.

The inspectors also noted an appreciable increase in diversity with more than four in 10 women among those recently hired and more than one in 10 from a black, Asian or other minority background, of those who stated it.

But the report stressed that forces remain overstretched and short of experienced detectives and digital forensic specialists to tackle the surge in online crime.

“While the police may be effective and efficient in bringing some offenders to justice, some very material concerns remain over the low numbers of investigative outcomes for many crime types,” it said.

Meanwhile, the report noted that progress towards tackling the huge backlog in criminal cases that has built up in the court system during the pandemic, has been too slow.

There were 359,261 outstanding cases at the magistrates’ court in the fourth quarter of 2021, a slight decrease compared to 2020 but a 4 per cent increase on the previous quarter. In the crown courts, there were 58,818 outstanding cases, down 3 per cent from their peak in the second quarter of 2021.

According to official estimates, the number of days that defendants are held on remand has leapt from an average of between 39 and 42 days between 2015 and 2019, to 61 days by 2021.

“The fatigue of staff after two years of working through the pandemic, coupled with the end of the immediate crisis, may mean that the ‘Blitz spirit’ has dwindled or gone entirely,” the report said.

The chief inspectors noted that while restrictions in the community have eased outside prisons, conditions inside have remained largely unchanged with 49 per cent of prisoners surveyed saying they spent less than two hours each day outside their cells on a typical weekday, rising to 67 per cent at weekends.

In the 2019-2020 reporting year, these figures were 19 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively.

“There has been disappointingly little progress to improve time out of cell, which in most prisons is far from returning to already insufficient pre-pandemic levels,” they said.

The Ministry of Justice has been contacted for comment.