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Jane Croft

The backlog of crown court cases is causing “grave concerns” amongst the government inspectors who monitor the justice system, a new report has found.

The study which looked at the impact of the pandemic on the Criminal Justice System has concluded that the greatest risk to criminal justice in England and Wales comes from the “unprecedented and very serious” backlog in court cases which is having a ripple impact on all parts of the justice system.

The case backlog predates the coronavirus pandemic but the situation has been exacerbated by Covid-19 after crown courts were closed and jury trials were temporarily suspended for two months last year. Since then numbers of hearings have fallen because two or three video-linked courtrooms are now needed for each trial due to social distancing measures.

The number of outstanding cases in crown courts in England and Wales rose from 39,318 in early March to 53,318 in late November, according to HM Courts and Tribunals Service which has opened a number of new temporary “Nightingale” courts to help ease pressure on the system.

The government’s four chief justice inspectors — who monitor the probation service, police, prison and the Crown Prosecution Service—- have united in the latest report to express “grave concerns” about the impact of Covid-19-related court backlogs across England and Wales.

The chief inspectors, who will testify before lawmakers at the justice committee on Tuesday, point to difficulties and lengthy waits at all stages of the criminal justice process that “benefit no one and risk damage to many”.

Justin Russell, chief inspector of probation, 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.”

David Lammy, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, called the report “damning” and said the government had “dithered” allowing the backlog to grow.

The Crown Prosecution Service said: “Safely reducing the backlog of court cases is vital so we can ease pressure on prosecutors and continue to deliver justice. We are working urgently with partners to achieve this.”

The Ministry of Justice said: “In recognition of the scale of the challenge we face, the government is investing £450m to boost recovery in the courts and deliver swifter justice, and this is already yielding results — the magistrates’ backlog continues to fall and Crown Courts cases reached pre-pandemic levels last month.”