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‘Please don’t forget us’: Coronavirus adds to court cases backlog

Woman walks with back to camera (stock image)Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The lockdown has added to delays to court cases (stock image)

The coronavirus lockdown has added thousands more cases to the backlog faced by courts in England and Wales. It could take up to 10 years to clear this backlog, a new report says. So how does this affect people already tied up in the criminal justice system?

Emma describes herself as stubborn. She says it’s the reason why she hasn’t given up on the justice system.

It’s been nearly three years since she went to the police to allege she’d been raped. The suspect was arrested soon afterwards but it would be another two years before he was charged.

She says the police have been incredibly supportive throughout but she still doesn’t understand why the investigation has taken so long. “It’s never been explained. Just that they’re very busy.”

Her trial, which was finally due to start in June, has now been adjourned as a result of the pandemic, and she’s been warned it might not start for another year. “It’s really difficult. How are we supposed to move on when it’s never finished? And it’s not just me, it’s my family and friends. It affects others.”

Through it all Emma has been supported by the charity Solace Women’s Aid. They say there’s nothing unusual about the delays she has faced. Even before the pandemic, government figures show that it’s been taking, on average, 511 days to complete a case. For rape, robbery and fraud it’s been taking on average even longer.

When asked what she would like to say to those who might be in a position to do something to speed up the system, Emma starts to cry and says: “Please don’t forget about us.”

‘Zombie case’

John describes himself as a composed, professional person. But after three years of being tangled up in the courts system, he says he felt battered and calls the system broken. John’s barrister nicknamed his case “the zombie case”.

John was charged with actual bodily harm in 2016. Having never been in trouble with the law before, he was desperate to get to court and clear his name.

He was told to be on standby for a trial in March 2017. It didn’t happen. Then he was put on standby for a trial the following month. Again it didn’t happen. Then it got postponed for a whole year but it didn’t happen in 2018 either.

“I asked my barrister, is this normal? And he said, ‘sadly, yes’. It was astonishing really,” he says.

The delays in John’s case caused him so much stress that he thought about pleading guilty to a lesser offence. “I seriously considered it, even though I was innocent, just to end the matter.”

He was finally acquitted late last year, three years after the legal process began. In total his trial was postponed eight times. On seven occasions it was because of a lack of court time. He says each time he would build himself up for a court date. “There is anxiety, as you can imagine, and to have to do that nine times over, it brings unnecessary stress upon yourself and your family.”

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The pandemic has exacerbated existing delays in the courts – even before it struck there were some 37,000 cases waiting to be heard in the crown courts and nearly 400,000 were in the queue for the magistrates’ courts.

Thousands more trials than usual have been delayed since the UK went into lockdown on 23 March. And a report by the watchdog, Her Majesty’s CPS Inspectorate, says social distancing measures in courtrooms “will not allow” the existing backlog to be reduced. “Some estimates show that the current scale of increase in the backlog would take 10 years to clear at pre-pandemic rates,” the report adds.

The Criminal Bar Association, which represents criminal barristers, says that some trial delays have been caused by government cuts to the court budget which forced court rooms to stay shut last year.

But the Ministry of Justice points out that the court backlog is not exceptional and has fallen markedly in the crown courts over the past 10 years. They also say that they planned before the pandemic to increase the number of days the courts sit.

‘Hiding at home’

Matthew hasn’t been able to go to work in his public-sector job for the last three years because he’s being investigated for allegedly committing a serious offence.

He was arrested in 2017 but rather than being released on bail, which is time limited, he was released under investigation or RUI, which isn’t. He then waited two-and-a-half years before being charged. He says that his mental health has drastically suffered as a result of what he calls an abusive process. The government is currently reviewing the use of RUIs.

Matthew’s lawyers fear that his trial, due in the autumn, will get postponed to next year as a result of the pandemic.

But he is desperate to clear his name and get back to work. “Prior to the false allegation, my life was built around helping others in any way I could. During the pandemic, I have felt as if I’m hiding at home whilst my colleagues battle on the front line to beat this virus.”

Names in this article have been changed.