Victims, witnesses and suspects may have to wait years for justice to be served, Derbyshire's police and crime chief says.
Hardyal Dhindsa, Derbyshire’s police and crime commissioner, says the court system was already “overloaded” before the pandemic and that lockdown and the need for social distancing have only worsened this situation.
He says his persistent calls for an East Midlands “Nightingale court” – a converted building used as a court to help clear the backlog in trials – “ideally” in Derbyshire, have so far been unsuccessful.
In June, Mr Dhindsa said the crippling backlog in cases represented an “emergency”.
Now Mr Dhindsa has said: “One of the biggest challenges faced was the lack of substantial planning within the court system for incidents such as these, which resulted in the sudden cancellation of all courts.
“De-warning (alerting that an impending case has been cancelled) a significant number of victims, whilst ensuring they remained supported without being able to tell them when their case would be heard, was problematic.
“Witness care have seen an increase of approximately 47 per cent in their work, with victims who were due to attend trials in March now having no idea when their cases will be heard.
“In an attempt to fill court space, we are now seeing victims and witnesses being warned and then de-warned multiple times.
“This is at the detriment of victims and witnesses, and my biggest concern now is that victims will feel that they no longer want to pursue cases and will lose confidence in the criminal justice system.
“Our main challenge now is to ensure that we can support victims and witnesses as best as we can, reassuring them that they are being taken seriously.
“This is not easy, as we can only foresee a lack of court space moving forward into what was an already overloaded court system prior to the pandemic; the news that the courts will remain open during the second lockdown period is welcome.
“My concern is not limited to victims and witnesses.
“Let us not forget that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty and there will be those who are innocent who will have to potentially wait years in order to clear their name due to the backlogs.
“The effective delivery of a justice system affects us all.
“Within the custody environment the force have been challenged by the creation of virtual remand hearings (VRH); in theory this should have been an efficient process but they have had to overcome some significant challenges due to the delays in the courts.
“VRH has created the additional pressure of backlogs for everyday policing due to congested custody cell blocks.
“The pressure to manage additional risks due to VRH was placed at the feet of the police at very short notice, creating multiple issues around safeguarding and maintaining a safe working environment for our colleagues.”
He said cross-cutting boundaries between police forces and the different branches of the criminal justice system “presents significant challenges for us working together”.
Mr Dhindsa said in June there were more than 1,000 court cases in Derbyshire either delayed indefinitely or at risk of postponement.
Of those, 98 were cases in crown courts, which deal with the more serious offences. 166 further crown court cases were at risk.
There were 261 trials in magistrates’ courts – where lesser offences are ruled on only by magistrates (volunteer members of the public) and there are no juries – which had been adjourned with no new date set. A further 560 cases had been adjourned for first hearings in domestic abuse and youth court cases.
Councillors had also suggested defunct courts in Buxton, Derbyshire, and Burton, Staffordshire, could serve as Nightingale courts, but these options have not been successful.