Courts facing record backlogs over coronavirus outbreak, think tank warns

Courts and prisons need hundreds of millions more in spending to deal with capacity pressures, IfG finds

Courts face huge backlogs because of Covid-19 social distancing measures. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA

By John Johnston

29 Apr 2020

Prisons and courts are facing record overcrowding and backlogs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, a think tank has said

In a report this week, the Institute for Goverment warned defendants and victims could be left waiting more than six months for trials in crown courts as a result of coronavirus delays.

With most courtrooms shut during the lockdown, the study predicted waiting times for cases could rise by as much as 70% if strict social distancing measures remain in place for the next six months.


They estimated between £55m and £110m in new funding would be needed over the next two years to pay for extra crown court trials to clear the backlog or risk seeing "justice delayed" for victims.

Meanwhile, the group also warned the government's pledge to provide an extra 10,000 prison places would not be sufficient to meet the predicted spike, saying prison numbers could soar to a record 95,000 by 2023-24.

The IfG predicted that at least an extra £250m a year in extra spending would be required to maintain current levels of performance in prisons – and that even more funds would need to be made available once the impact of coronavirus on the justice system is made clear.

IfG programme director and the report's author, Nick Davies, 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 warning comes after justice aecretary Robert Buckland admitted earlier this week that just 33 prisoners had been released early under the government's scheme to slow the spread of the virus in prisons.

Buckland said progress had been "careful and slow" but that each release required significant risk assessments.

But new figures from Public Health England found there were 1,783 "possible/probable" coronavirus cases in prisons, more than six times higher than the official confirmed figure of 304.

The health body said while there was no evidence of "explosive outbreaks" in prisons, there was still "signficant threats" to inmates.

Responding to the figures, shadow justice secretary David Lammy, said: "The truth is that the government does not know the true scale of the Covid-19 outbreak in prisons because very few staff and prisoners have been tested for the virus.

"Explosive outbreaks in prisons are not only extremely dangerous for those on the prison estate.

"Scientists have warned that prisons can become pumps that spread the virus out of prisons, into hospitals and the general public."

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