Report warns of challenges to come as CPS faces backlog of court trials

An increase in a backlog of court cases could take up to 10 years to clear, a report has warned, as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is praised for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis so far.

Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) carried out an inspection to look at the CPS’s handling of the pandemic after lockdown measures were imposed in March.

In a report published on Tuesday, it warned there were challenges to come with the backlog of cases which are increasing daily, with some estimates indicating that it could take up to a decade to clear.

It estimated that trial backlogs in the magistrates’ courts have increased by 32% between the beginning of March and early May, from 12,100 to 16,000.

In the Crown Court, the estimated increase is 43%, from 17,400 to 24,900, in the same time period.

By the end of May, the increase in backlogs was 41% in the magistrates’ courts and 53% in the Crown Court.

The report states: “Court sittings and courtroom capacity with social distancing requirements will not allow for reduction of the existing backlog.

“Some estimates show that the current scale of increase in the backlog would take 10 years to clear at pre-pandemic rates.”

It continued: “Without some innovative thinking and solutions, the challenge of addressing the backlog is likely to be much more complex than dealing with the immediate crisis.”

Inspectors virtually visited three CPS areas in the West Midlands, North West and Wessex, between March 16 and May 8.

The CPS was praised by inspectors for its “effective and sound” actions which ensured the smooth running of the criminal justice system before and during the lockdown.

Court staff told inspectors they were being supported by their managers, as they were kept up to date with what was happening with regular communication.

Wellbeing hubs and webinars were created to help staff with their heath and mental wellbeing, as well as support packages, consisting of equipment such as laptop stands, monitors, chairs and keyboards, to support the needs of those working from home.

The report states one member of the CPS lost their life to Covid-19.

Commenting on the report, HM Chief Inspector Kevin McGinty said: “The CPS has played a key role in ensuring that justice has continued to be delivered. It’s encouraging to see staff felt that their safety was a top priority, and they were updated regularly with what was happening and what was required.

“It’s clear that actions the CPS took in creating its 2020 vision allowed them to react in such a way that the pandemic has had a very limited impact on its business.

“I hope that the fervour and innovation that has taken place during the initial response is maintained into and throughout the challenge of recovery.”

It comes after the Criminal Bar Association said a recent survey revealed 93% of practising criminal barristers rejected further Government cuts to jury trials, while 95% backed a proposal to increase court capacity by opening Nightingale – or Blackstone – courts.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors, backed calls not to curtail trial by jury in response to the pandemic, arguing that backlogs can be addressed by other means.

“Jury trial is the bedrock of our criminal justice system,” said Simon Davis, president of the Law Society of England and Wales.

“We should not be thinking about scrapping jury trials, even if only for some cases and on a temporary basis.”

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