The number of prosecutions or handed out-of-court disposals fell by 22 per cent in a year amid the coronavirus pandemic, official figures show.
Around 1.19 million people were formally dealt with by the criminal justice system in England and Wales between October 2019 and September 2020, compared with more than 1.5 million for the previous period.
The latest quarterly data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) revealed the impact the Covid-19 outbreak has had on the court system after they were forced to shut as the UK went into lockdown.
25% drop in number of offenders convicted
The MoJ document, published on Thursday (18 Feb) also revealed the number of offenders convicted between October 2019 and September 220 dropped by 25 per cent, from 1,189,903 to 881,986.
A similar fall was shown in the number of people sentenced, dropping from 1,187,624 to 880,513.
Custody rates and average sentence lengths both increased overall, according to the MoJ document, which said: “For custody rates, this is likely to partially reflect the prioritisation in courts of more serious offences since April 2020 - meaning a greater concentration of court time for offences more likely to get a prison sentence.
“The increase in average sentence lengths continues the trend of the last 10 years, and it is less clear from the monthly data what impact, if any, the pandemic may have had.”
The figures reveal that in the last quarter of the period, the numbers jumped back up by 64 per cent. The MoJ said this reflected the easing of the lockdown restrictions throughout the summer, where courts began to reopen and carried out socially distanced hearings.
The MoJ document said: “The figures published today highlight the impact on criminal court prosecutions and convictions of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Latest short-term trends are mostly reflective of the impact of the pandemic on court processes and prioritisation rather than a continuation of the longer-term series.
“The monthly data shows that following the sharp falls in prosecutions and convictions immediately following the March 2020 ‘lockdown’, these have recovered by September 2020, although not quite to pre-pandemic levels.”
Criminal justice system under immense pressure
The criminal justice system was under immense stress before the pandemic broke out.
A backlog of crown and magistrate court cases has been in existence for several years, court closures and underfunding of the system led to the justice system struggling to deal with the immense pressure it was put under when plunged into lockdown.
When the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, jury trials were suspended for two month, as well as others for a longer period of time.
Sixteen temporary ‘Nightingale Courts’ were set up in August by the MoJ as part of an £80 million emergency package, helping to fund an additional 1,6000 members of staff.
In England and Wales, the Metro revealed, by the end of October the crown court case build up had risen by 31 per cent in eight months, and now stood at 53,318.
The number of cases being resolved in crown courts has trebled since lockdown, however, courts have struggled to find space due to social distancing measures, meaning the backlog of cases grows almost daily.
There has also been a rise in complainants dropping out of cases to avoid the long wait. This is particularly prevalent in sexual assault survivors, where convictions are at an all time low.
James Rossiter, a spokesperson for the Criminal Bar Association told the Metro: “The biggest impact right now is on what I would call the ‘ordinary crime’.
“It’s your muggings, your burglaries and knife crimes and also your sexual assaults that actually dominate what most people experience of crime.
“The reason that’s been most impacted is because these so-called ‘ordinary crimes’ are the ones where the prosecution levels have dropped incredibly low for the last two years right up to March, so that the few that did get prosecuted have not been followed through, with endless postponements to trials in the courts.”