Crown Prosecution Service inspectors have highlighted the ‘unsettling’ impact that efforts to clear the criminal court backlog have had on victims and witnesses in hundreds of cases.
Reporting today on the CPS’s response to Covid-19, CPS chief inspector Kevin McGinty said the pressures on CPS staff have increased but the impact on victims and witnesses ‘is much more of a concern’.
McGinty said: ‘Trying to ensure the effective and efficient use of court has meant that the main focus and priority is not to lose valuable court time… It is not unusual to hear of several trials being listed for the same time slot, with a decision having to be taken late in the day about which goes ahead. Whilst I accept the necessity to use court time efficiently, there is also an impact on victim confidence that must be taken into account.’
The report points out that giving evidence is a major event for most individuals, who are nervous or worried.
The first lockdown led to a large number of cases being postponed, with victims and witnesses in hundreds of cases ‘suddenly in limbo’ as they no longer knew what was happening.
Inspectors were told that some magistrates’ courts fixed a single future date for all trials – known as ‘bucket list’ trial dates - to give parties a date to plan for.
The report says: ‘Whilst this seems a better option than having no clear idea of what might happen, in reality it meant that the vast majority of victims and witnesses would end up with entirely different dates when magistrates’ courts started to reopen. The impact of this on victims and witnesses is at best unsettling.’
Assessing the ongoing impact, the report says trial dates are being set into 2023. In one CPS area, ‘stage dates’ are being set due to the lack of available courtrooms. These are dates by which the defence and prosecution must take action in line with the criminal procedures, with alleged victims and witnesses sent a letter saying that the defendant has pleaded not guilty but that no trial date is available. 'We were told that this has happened even in cases with vulnerable victims,' the report states.
Inspectors say the challenges of the backlog and increase in workload will have major consequences on the service provided to victims and witnesses. In April 2019, CPS areas had a total of 37,700 cases, which rose to 45,300 by March 2020. The outstanding caseload in December 2020 was 64,500.
Elsewhere, the inspectorate found the CPS’s ‘can do’ approach and attitude reported in June 2020 continued. But, today's report says: ‘Sending staff back into the court environment with the pandemic still raging, and with the emergence of the new variant, had caused difficult levels of stress.'