Crime victims waiting years for justice as Covid causes huge backlog
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019
Victims of serious crimes are waiting several years for justice as coronavirus causes court backlogs to surge by more than a third.
The courts, already struggling after years of cuts, were thrown into chaos by last year’s outbreak.
They closed between March and June and when they reopened jury trials were badly affected by social distancing rules.
Nationally, the number of outstanding crown court cases has risen to 53,000 - a 40pc increase on last year.
In Norfolk, there were 1,752 outstanding crown court cases at the end of 2020, compared to 1,257 the year before - a rise of 40pc.
Michelle Brown, 28, from Norwich, survived a horrific sex attack in May 2017.
But due to repeated court delays her attacker, 52-year-old Gary Nathan of Pottergate, was not sentenced for more than 500 days after the attack.
“Now that it’s all over and I’m back at work I’ve been able to get my life back together,” said Ms Brown.
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“But at the time I just couldn’t manage anything. I couldn’t start recovering. I couldn’t go to work, I just couldn’t cope.
“With the impact of lockdown causing further delays, I just can’t imagine the amount of suffering that people are going through."
The number of cases waiting to be heard in Norfolk involving sexual assault, drug offences and violence against the person has risen by more than 50pc since 2019, while the number of cases to be heard involving possession of a weapon has more than doubled.
Meanwhile, the number of trials held in Norfolk crown courts has plummeted by 65pc – from 740 in the first three quarters of 2019 to 260 last year.
Criminal defence lawyer and director of Belmores Solicitors in Norwich, Simon Nicholls, said he expects the delays to continue for the next four to five years.
“Covid has just shone a light on the problem, which is decades of cuts to the criminal justice system," he said.
Before Covid, the average time for the courts to hear cases had already doubled between 2014 and 2018 in Norwich and King’s Lynn crown courts – from one year to two.
Mr Nicholls said he has had one death by dangerous driving trial postponed for six months, while other clients are in jail waiting for trials where they could be found innocent.
“Telling someone who is likely to be found innocent that they have to spent four or five months more in prison during a pandemic isn’t easy,” he added.
Bar spokesman and Suffolk-based barrister Simon Spence said: "I’ve seen cases taking three years and the more serious cases involving sexual assault and the like are taking over a year now.
"In those cases you often have an un-convicted defendant sitting in jail, and an obviously distressed claimant facing long waits for the case to end.”
But he said the backlog had existed long before Covid.
“Technology will be important going forward. For me I see no reason for anyone to be in court unless they are participating in a jury trial, or their client must appear in person," he added.
Alex Mayes, head of external affairs at the charity Victim Support, said his team were dealing with cases in Norfolk that were due to start in March last year, but had yet to be given a court date.
“Delays cause victims and witnesses significant stress and anxiety, and prevents victims from being able to move on.
“A long wait for trial means that it’s constantly on someone’s mind, which can hinder recovery.”
According to Mr Nicholls and Mr Spence, the main problem is simply a lack of capacity.
“Only around 50pc of the our court capacity is in use, because of the pandemic,” said Mr Spence. “But even before March, around 20pc of courtrooms were unused."
The government has opened ‘nightingale courts’ around the country, but because of a lack of security facilities these courts are unable to hear cases where the defendant is in jail or has a chance of being sent to jail.
A new ‘super court’ has also been built in Manchester, with extra court rooms also planned in cities like Birmingham and London.
But Mr Nicholls said the root of the problem was historic funding cuts.
“There has been cuts for years in the criminal justice system,” he said. “Nobody wants to put money towards villains, and so not funding legal aid has become a political decision.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said it had worked hard to keep Norfolk’s courts open throughout the pandemic, and was prioritising urgent cases while opening nightingale courts and increasing use of video technology.
They added the government has invested £450m in the court system, with outstanding cases in magistrates court lower than last year’s peak and the number of crown court cases being dealt with back at pre-pandemic levels.