The crippling backlog in court trials will take years to clear – and may involve the creation of “Nightingale courts”, says Derbyshire’s police and crime commissioner.
Hardyal Dhindsa, the county’s PCC, says there is a huge backlog in court cases, caused by lockdown.
He says this is not the pace at which justice should be delivered and it is not fair for the victims of the alleged crimes.
In Derbyshire alone (including Derby) more than 1,000 court cases have either been adjourned without a new date set or are at risk from being postponed (also without a new date).
Of these, as of May 27, 98 are crown court trials dealing with the most serious criminal offences.
A further 166 crown cases are scheduled to take place between July and Christmas and the PCC says there is “no indication how many of these will be able to progress”.
Mr Dhindsa was asked for some examples of alleged crimes which these crown court cases were dealing with but he could not say. Derby Crown Court was approached for comment.
Trials requiring a jury have been on hold for several months due to the lack of an ability to maintain social distancing in courts.
To date, in Derbyshire, 261 Magistrates court trials have been adjourned without a new date, along with 560 cases adjourned for first hearings in domestic abuse and youth court cases.
Mr Dhindsa says that at the moment, for every one court case that is heard an average of two and a half are delayed.
He has contacted all of Derbyshire’s local authorities to find public buildings which could be repurposed as “Nightingale courts” for civil and family cases and tribunals.
The figures for the court case backlog were published by Mr Dhindsa in a report to Derbyshire County Council to be discussed next week by the police and crime panel.
In the report he said “there is a significant risk developing and the backlog may take years to clear” and that solutions were needed to “mitigate the ever-increasing risk”.
Mr Dhindsa told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the court system is running at 30 per cent capacity.
He said: “We need to treat this as an emergency.
“Due to social distancing requirements we can’t run as many courts as usual.
“It is a massive issue around victims getting justice and justice happening speedily.
“This is something that is being focused on locally, regional and nationally, it is a major emergency building up and we are pushing the government to consider this really seriously.
“Even before we came into the Covid-19 lockdown, courts were running at full capacity and court cases can take months and months. Nationally, there will have been a backlog of 36,000 cases.”
Mr Dhindsa could not say what the current national backlog was but suggested it would line up with the statistic of for every one case going ahead an average of two and a half are delayed.
He said: “We are trying to prioritise domestic abuse but there are loads of cases stacking up. It is not just a Derbyshire problem but is a national problem.
“The whole criminal justice system is trying to make sure that the most vulnerable are dealt with as early as possible. But every case is an important case and there is a crime to be resolved.
“All PCCs have been raising the issue about Nightingale courts, in the same way we have had Nightingale hospitals (and a Nightingale care home in Belper).
“Space in court was not designed for two-metre social distancing.
“Civil, family court, welfare and the tribunals which currently sit in the criminal courts, which need less security, could be found space out of the courts, giving more space for criminal cases.
“I have put a call out to any organisation or local authorities to identify premises which they think could be potentially looked at as Nightingale courts to help resolve this emergency situation where the longer lockdown goes on more and more court cases are being backed up.
“Despite all the innovative ways the criminal justice system is using to still have sittings they are still limited.
“I am really, really concerned that victims, the longer they cannot get their case into court and dealt with, their morale and their anxiety will increase and I want to do as much as possible to reduce that. Justice is not being delivered speedily.
“Even when we come out of the Covid-19 lockdown there will be a massive backlog and to clear that could take years.”
Magistrates Courts in Derbyshire are currently continuing with virtual trials however the need for juries at crown court cases is preventing these from going ahead – due to the space required to maintain social distancing.
Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, said today that a proposal for judge-only trials in less serious crown court cases had “clear merit”.