gavel, hammer, judge

Courts crisis: What are the contingency plans?

gavel, hammer, judge

Our justice system is the latest place for coronavirus to rear its ugly head.

There’s now a backlog of 54,000 cases at Crown Courts and it could be four years before those accused of crimes such as rape, violent assault and robbery come to trial.

That’s a long time, ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ as they say. The problem is that it’s difficult to create Covid safe environments in old, cramped court buildings.

Labour has suggested arrangements last used during World War II when juries were reduced from 12 to seven, as well as opening more Nightingale courts i.e. temporary courts in more suitable buildings.

There are objections, as you may have seen with the fuss over proposals that Birmingham Rep be used, and elements of the legal profession are resistant to changes in jury size.

I was surprised to discover that prisoners are still being transported to court from prison. I can understand why those arrested on a serious charge might need to appear, if they’re likely to be remanded in custody, but I’m not clear why those already in prison can’t simply participate by Zoom as so many other people are forced to do these days.

That, of course, raises the question of what’s happening in prisons. The Prison Officers Association claimed that some 6,000 of their members were off work, as a result of the virus – that’s about a fifth of their membership in what is often described as an understrength work force.

There are conflicting claims about the level of Covid in prisons with some reports suggesting prisoners are deliberately misbehaving because they judge solitary as safer than the main estate. There have been calls for an early release plan but a government scheme last year got off to a bad start when it was reported that six serious offenders were released in error.

With the system on the verge of collapse, you might well ask – what are the contingency plans?

It seems strange that we could deal with such problems in the middle of a world war but our highly paid ministers and officials can’t cope today.

Steve McCabe MP weekly column for Birmingham Mail

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