The pressure put on the criminal justice system during the Covid-19 pandemic has been laid bare by official statistics that show the number of people dealt with in England and Wales fell by nearly a quarter amid evidence that the bottleneck has forced staff to carefully select which cases can be heard.
Data released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) showed the number of people being prosecuted or handed out-of-court disposals fell by 22% in the 12 months to September 2020, compared with the same period a year earlier.
The figures also showed a 25% drop in the number of offenders convicted and a similar decrease in the number of people sentenced.
While the government highlighted the unprecedented difficulties posed by the public health crisis, Labour blamed ministers.
“The collapse in cases dealt with by the criminal justice system in the past year is a result of the government’s slow and incompetent response to the pandemic,” the shadow justice secretary, David Lammy, said.
“A decade of failed Conservative ideology has wrecked the justice system, leaving it vulnerable even before the pandemic began. We now need to rebuild the justice system so that the UK can become the fairest country in the world.”
Custody rates and average sentence lengths both increased overall, according to the MoJ document, which added: “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 latest figures come amid concern about the effects of extending the time an unconvicted defendant can be held in custody awaiting trial as the courts try to work through a huge backlog of cases. In September, it emerged that official advice handed to ministers had warned the practice would disproportionately impact people who are black, Asian or from other ethnic minorities.
The MoJ document said the data highlighted the “impact on criminal court prosecutions and convictions of the Covid-19 pandemic”. It said: “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.”
But Lammy outlined steps he believed ministers should have taken to lessen the impact. “The government has failed to listen to Labour’s calls for a rapid extension in Nightingale courts, reduced war-time juries while pandemic restrictions are in place and the immediate rollout of testing in courts that would have allowed more justice to be done.”
Data from the last three months of the period suggested courts were recovering to an extent as restrictions eased in the summer and autumn, though not enough to keep pace with previous years.
An MoJ spokesman said: “Criminal courts have made further good progress since the period these figures cover – magistrates’ backlogs have fallen by 50,000 since last summer, cases dealt with in crown courts reached pre-Covid levels in December, and more rooms are now open for jury trials than before the pandemic.
“This week, we announced even more Nightingale courts as part of plans to drive this recovery further, which also include boosting the rollout of technology and hiring 1,600 extra staff.”