Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Covid-19 and the English Legal System (15) – Criminal Justice in existential crisis?

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On Friday 30 October 2020 a research consultancy, Crest, published a report Impact and legacy of Covid-19 on the CJS: Modelling overview. Using existing data to model future developments, the report set out what it regarded as the possible impact of Covid-19 on the Criminal Justice System.

The rather sober title of the report was not matched by the press release Crest drafted to draw attention to its study. This was headed “A perfect storm: why the criminal justice system is facing an existential crisis”. This apocalytic vision certainly caught the eye of some journalists – which is of course the reason why I am now writing about it now.

And the report is a really important one, which underscores the urgent need for the Government to get on with the appointment and work of the promised Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice system. (See https://martinpartington.com/2020/07/13/royal-commission-on-the-criminal-justice-system-details-awaited/)

The report starts by reminding readers that, even before Covid-19, the CJS was facing a number of long-standing problems: decreasing charge rates, worsening court timeliness and an estimated backlog in the courts of c.104K
cases, prisons and probation operating at full capacity. Covid-19 has added to those pressures. The report also predicts a future of increased pressure, the consequence of the likely rise in long term unemployment due to the economic impact of Covid, leading to more crime, and the 20,000 increase in police officer numbers, leading to more detection and the need to process more people through the system.

The research team’s modelling suggests, that without any action, the Crown Court backlog is projected to increase from c.45.5K in 2019 in to c.195.5K (x4) in 2024. and the magistrates’ court backlog is projected to increase from c.58.6K in 2019 to 580.3K (x10) in 2024.

Current responses by Government – e.g. making more courts covid-safe and opening Nightingale Courts in a number of town – just do not cut the mustard, in Crest’s view. Much more dramatic action is needed.

The principal criticism contained in the report is that there is currently no ‘whole-system’ view of the challenges facing the CJS. Different parts of the system work in isolation from other parts.

For example: the 20K police uplift will lead to a rise in pressure on the court backlogs; if the courts increase their outflow in sentenced cases, there will be a rise in pressure on prisons and probation.

Furthermore, assuming equilibrium is achieved in courts, suspended sentence orders are projected to increase by 24%, post-release supervision caseload will increase by 30% and community sentence orders are projected to increase by 14% by 2024. This will put extreme pressure on a probation service which was already underperforming.

There is, in the report’s view, inadequate recognition within Government of the interdependencies of each part of the criminal justice system.

The Crest report states that

“to bring the backlog back to pre-Covid levels will require a change in more than just capacity.
Options include:
● increasing the speed with which cases are dealt with: e.g. increasing the efficiency of listing, decreasing victim attrition, decreasing cracked trials etc.
● decreasing the amount of cases entering the court system by increasing effective out of court disposals
● decreasing the amount of police recorded crime originally entering the CJS through effective crime prevention programmes.”

I think some would argue that this list of options is not an original one. All these ideas have been discussed within the CJS, and achieving the outcomes suggested in the report is not easy. But what this report has very effectively done is highlight precisely the challenges that the now increasingly delayed Royal Commission must address. It should be a matter of urgency for the Government to get the Commission up and running.

The Crest Report is available at https://www.crestadvisory.com/post/covid-19-and-the-criminal-justice-system

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