The court system is not known for its speed (due process, rather than crime control, remember) and the pandemic will exacerbate this further.
The Institute for Government (IfG) reports that “the coronavirus lockdown has seen courtrooms closed for all but a small number of priority cases and jury trials are suspended altogether”. Their research suggests that if the lockdown continues for 6 months, case waiting times could increase 70%, meaning delayed justice for victims and defendants. Crown Courts were suspended in England and Wales on 24 March and, while there have been some attempts to continue some trials through technology, this has not been possible as yet for jury trials.
Some Family Courts have apparently seen a fivefold increase in urgent care proceedings in recent weeks, as already ‘at risk’ family contexts are worsened by, for example, increased substance misuse or the loss of in-person support, since the lockdown. Investigations by the Guardian suggest that some family courts are operating remotely by phone or Skype. A decision to remove children without seeing any of those involved is tough and Family Magistrates will need to find a balance between acting promptly to protect children but ensuring they have good information.
[A side comment on this – as with domestic abuse, it is very important to challenge the current media narrative which suggests the lockdown is causing domestic or child abuse, and hence the increase in reports to helplines or statutory services. This is a misunderstanding of the nature of abuse (and a conflation with ordinary intimate and familial tensions and arguments, which characterise most households). In the vast majority of cases, the current increase in reporting will relate to pre-existing and ongoing abuse. It is more that the lockdown is exacerbating the situation for victims, who are now housed 24/7 with their perpetrators. In addition, the level of abuse may be intensifying – and so victims may for the first time, or increasingly, be seeking support].
As with other public services, this current challenge to the justice system comes following years of cuts. Following the lockdown, the processing of this court case backlog combined with Government’s pledge to employ 20,000 further police officers (more officers likely = more convictions) the prison population will also likely increase.
It will be interesting to see if the use of technology to run court cases and the early release of some prisoners due to the pandemic, will have any longer term impact on how the justice system manages these many pressures.
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020.