A Lords committee has found that while coronavirus has had a ‘devastating’ impact on courts, the full extent of the damage is still ‘fundamentally unclear’. The backlog in the criminal courts is reaching crisis levels to the point that a report from the Lords constitution has said that the quality of justice is ‘increasingly at risk’.
One of the main issues being cited is that the quality of witness recollection and testimony naturally fade over time, so the longer cases have to wait to be heard, the less reliable they arguably become.
The committee has urged the government to provide funding in order to ensure that all cases in the Crown court are tried within a year of the plea, as well as backing plans to trial remote juries.
Another issue touched upon in the report is the effect of technology being used to try and keep the justice system flowing during the coronavirus pandemic. Data protection regulations are cited as a block to transparency on the impact of technology and whether it is affecting the outcomes of cases.
However, it did raise concerns that reduced face to face trials risk alienating litigants, as well as potentially not giving the level of “empathy and humanity” needed in sensitive cases.
The committee’s underlying verdict on the state of the criminal courts system was damning, labelling the unprecedented backlog as “neither acceptable nor inevitable”.
They state that while the coronavirus pandemic has been the catalyst for the incredible number of unheard cases, is isn’t acting in a vacuum and that the situation results from “years of underinvestment” in the criminal courts. They continue to urge the government to approve more funding in order to retroactively sort existing cases and protect the court system from future troubles like this.