The government will need to spend as much as an additional £220m over two years to clear the backlog of court cases generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, an independent thinktank has estimated.
The criminal justice system is the focus of the latest report of the Institute for Government, which says it works to make government more effective.
The thinktank says the coronavirus could create a major backlog of cases. ‘If the shutdown of courts lasts for six months, our central projection is that waiting times would increase by 60% in the Crown court (from an average of 18 weeks to 29 weeks) and stay that long indefinitely without further action,’ the report says.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service has 160 open courts and 116 staffed courts operating as it tries to keep the justice system going during the pandemic. Jury trials have been paused.
The institute says more video and phone hearings could help to clear the backlog but acknowledges concerns about defendants potentially being treated unfairly if they are not in the same room as the judges.
The report says: ‘Justice delayed is preferable to justice denied, and the government should instead focus on reducing the backlog once the coronavirus crisis is over.’
The thinktank reckons the government will need to spend £55m-£110m per year for two years to clear the backlog and return waiting times to 2019/20 levels. The funding would need to be agreed outside of the spending review process to start reducing the backlog this financial year.
Nick Davies, who wrote the report, said: ‘Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the government’s pledge to increase police officer numbers could have resulted in courts and prisons being overwhelmed by an increase in cases. The effect of the coronavirus outbreak now means that there will also be huge delays in cases reaching courts – and therefore justice delayed – without more spending.’
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.