What has been the impact of COVID-19 on our criminal courts?

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Whilst the pressure that COVID-19 has placed on any industry cannot be understated, the effect on our justice system continues to raise concerns. This is a particularly pressing issue within criminal courts where the impact is projected to be felt for many years to come.

What are the issues faced?

Even prior to the pandemic, criminal courts have been struggling to cope with the demand faced. These issues are not attributed to an astounding increase in the amount of crime, but instead, insufficient resources such as a lack of court sitting days.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly exacerbated this problem. When courts struggled to cope with the demand during normal working hours with full staff and juries, it is unsurprising to see an inability to adapt to the new normal. Funding continues to pose an issue, however, this is now in the context of the rapid modernisation required to allow courts to function remotely. Courts have been forced to adapt to running with lower capacity and the resulting hindrance on the quantity of cases that can be heard.

A more surprising discovery in light of this is the quantity of courts that simultaneously sit empty due to insufficient staffing. This is felt in all aspects of criminal work, whether it be judges, ushers, administrative staff or unpaid magistrates who are unsurprisingly more reluctant to offer their time. The number of barristers specialising in crime has also reduced with this pattern forecasted only to continue. The Criminal Bar Association notes that criminal law is “not an economically viable career”.

This poses a scenario in which courts must do more with less resources to help shift the backlog as it continues to grow.

What is the impact of these issues?

There are wider-reaching implications of the issues identified. Primarily, victims and witnesses may wait several years before a case is heard. This is extending the time in which people are obligated to think about unfortunate events and preventing the closure that many seek from the justice system. Furthermore, this process is also drawn out for defendants who until they are convicted are also to be seen as innocent within the eyes of the law and therefore, victims of the same problems.

By extension, claims can be made that this wait time is infringing the rule of law by denying access to justice. It is a fundamental right within our society to have access to fair courts and inability to be heard in court until years after the event raises questions as to whether this right is being unfairly infringed upon.

The changes in the way cases are run also has greater implications for some than others. Whilst many younger, abled people may be well-adapted to courts operating virtually, the difficulties that others may experience in their attempts to do so cannot be understated. Accommodations must be made in courts for those who require them in order to achieve justice, however, questions must be raised as to whether people are as well-accommodated and supported under new systems.

How can these issues be addressed?

It is clear from looking at the origins of these issues that they are not rooted solely in the pandemic. Courts have adapted relatively well to the new normal, whether this be operating online or at a lower capacity. Nightingale courtrooms have also been opened to increase the number of trials that can be heard. However, the issues remain in that courts were struggling prior to the pandemic, so adapting quickly to the ‘new normal’ would never have been sufficient.

These issues appear to be policy based, primarily caused by a lack of funding. This can be seen in lack of court staff, such as ushers, judges and administrative support to allow courts to hear more cases. It can also be seen in the reduction of legal aid making criminal law an undesirable career for aspiring barristers who are subsequently choosing to specialise elsewhere. It is unlikely that these are problems that can be easily addressed without the increase in funding that is required to cope with the demand.

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