Criminal trials over Microsoft Teams, innocent defendants pleading guilty and victims’ families forced to wait years for closure. Coronavirus could deliver the knockout blow to a justice system brought to its knees by chronic underfunding.
A decade of austerity was already taking its toll, but the shutdown at the start of the pandemic had resulted in a backlog of nearly half a million criminal cases as of June, according to the Ministry of Justice. That’s a 44% increase year-on-year and the highest number since 2012, when records began.
The Secret Barrister – arguably Britain’s most famous lawyer – says the system is on the verge of a major crisis. Speaking exclusively to HuffPost UK, he said the human cost of the delays was “monumental”.
“I have had clients whose trials have been adjourned multiple times, while they languish in custody awaiting their day in court,” he said. “I’ve had a teenage client remanded into youth detention, experiencing custody for the very first time, who because of Covid was held for nine months without visits from family, confined to his cell for up to 23 hours a day.
“I’ve had clients who admitted their guilt at the time of the offence back in 2018, but who have had to wait two years for the police and Crown Prosecution Service to bring the case to court, and who, despite pleading guilty, have had to wait yet further time – six months in some cases – to be sentenced, during which time their lives are put on hold. Some have children and other caring responsibilities, and the strain of not knowing impacts upon the blameless family members as well as the defendant.”
In a stark warning, the lawyer added: “The system is without doubt close to collapse. We are listing trials in 2022 for alleged offences that occurred in 2018, sometimes earlier. The criminal courts run on oral evidence – a witness speaking live about the things they have seen and heard.
“Memory is the currency of criminal justice, and these...