East Anglia has some of the longest delays in the country to get cases to the Crown Courts, reflecting wider failings in the Justice system.
The Criminal Justice System has three elements, the Police, the Courts, and Prison and Probation. All three elements are there to help to stop people offending. Yet Covid-19, antiquated facilities, overcrowding and prejudice also continue to impact on rehabilitation.
Getting to Court
Starting with the Courts. delays in bringing a case to court and concluding a trial, damage the mental health of witnesses, victims, and the person accused (who may be innocent). There are currently 58,000 people queued in the system, and the average case takes almost two years to come to court. In 2021 the Criminal Justice Joint Inspectorate found that the delays were being caused by problems in sharing information between the parties, and accessing support.
Data compiled by the BBC shows that, nationally, delays in bringing all cases, including drug offences, and sexual offences, to the Crown Court are now at their longest since 2014. Priority is being given the sexual offences but even here there are wide variations, from an average of just 76 days in Plymouth, to 453 days in Leicester. The situation is worst in rape cases where a government report shows that it takes on average 706 days from the first report to the case reaching court.
Out of the 70 Crown Courts in England and Wales where data was available, Courts in East Anglia featured in the top ten of worst delays in sexual offence cases on three occasions.
|Crown Court||Days from report to Court for sexual offence cases|
The fact that a case can be heard 208 days sooner in Basildon than in Ipswich is a tragic indictment on the failings of the Justice system and how austerity has impacted on the Courts themselves, with Barristers even resorting to strike action to highlight their misgivings.
To address this the Government has proposed that Crown Courts are to be upgraded with better technology while staff are to receive specialist training to help with rape trials, the government says. The pilot, in Newcastle, Leeds and London, will see independent advisers on hand in courts to support victims.
Wider system failure
Yet these delays are symptomatic of wider failings across the whole criminal justice system.
In terms of the Police, whilst there has been an increase in the numbers of Police officers recently, this does not address the numbers lost due to austerity cuts. Additionally, last year Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), which independently assesses the effectiveness and efficiency of police forces and fire & rescue services, issued a stark report on the damage Covid-19 had brought to the Justice system.
They point to difficulties and lengthy waits at all stages of the criminal justice process that “benefit no one and risk damage to many”.
The Chief Inspectors highlighted some positive initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the acceleration of digital working, and praised the commitment of staff.
However, other areas were of more concern, including a reduction in education provision in custody and in the community for young people and the highly restrictive regimes for a majority of prisoners which have continued for many months without respite. These have impacted negatively on their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing and also more generally on prospects for effective rehabilitation.
The state of the prisons
The issues also reach prisons. Whilst the common notion is that Prison is there as punishment, one of the early definitions of the proposed Mission statement for Prisons in the Prison and Courts Bill in 2017 was that “Prisons must aim to protect the public, reform and rehabilitate offenders, prepare prisoners for a life outside prison, and maintain an environment that is safe and secure.” Introducing the Bill, the then Justice secretary Liz Truss said that it would “make sure that it is crystal clear what the prison system exists to deliver”.
The bill fell when parliament was dissolved following the election called when Theresa May became Prime Minister following the Brexit Referendum, yet the issues remain.
Prison and Probation are there to reduce reoffending. Yet antiquated facilities and overcrowding also continue to impact on rehabilitation.
Inside Times reported in April 2022 that in a recent Independent Monitoring Board inspection of HMP Chelmsford found that “Our most significant areas of concern were the infestation of rats in the older parts of the prison, the time it takes for the prison to deal with complaints, the process for safeguarding prisoners’ property, and overcrowding – more than 70% of prisoners sharing cells designed for one person.”
Additional reports indicate that when HM Inspectorate of Prisons visited in August 2021 they reported that the main kitchen was ‘unkempt and grubby’, some equipment was in poor repair and there was poor drainage.
This is hardly in keeping with the lofty aspirations set out in the government white paper which seeks to encourage rehabilitation and recruit new staff, which itself seems at odds with the statement of the Prime Minister to cut the Civil Service, of which the Ministry of Justice is part, by some 90,000 employees.
Justice is blind is a common phrase, however right now, she is also staggering, and, needs our support.