How COVID-19 has exacerbated a backlog in court cases

A frequent saying many of us are familiar with is, “Justice delayed is justice denied”. Courts have been infamous as places that are slow, mired in adjournments and bureaucracy. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Crown Court, there were approximately 50,000 cases waiting to be heard, around 45,000 of employment tribunals as well as no less than 400,000 cases in the magistrates courts waiting to be heard. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, due to social distancing measures, courts cannot operate at full capacity. Secondly, some judges and court staff (or their loved ones) have fallen ill with COVID-19, resulting in adjournments. Thirdly, even where hearings are held remotely, judges cannot hear cases at full capacity because it’s been recognised staring at a screen all day is tiring. It has been estimated that it could take a decade to clear the backlog. Whilst measures such as so-called Nightingale courts could help, they come at a very expensive cost of approximately a billion pounds. There are profound consequences to delays in the justice system. As the Scottish moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith pointed out hundreds of years ago, “beneficence, therefore, is less essential to the existence of society than justice”. There are some who innocent but in jail because their case has not yet been heard, a stark contradiction of the famous Blackstone principle: it is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer, a sentiment also reiterated in the scene of Abraham’s discussion with God in the Old Testament. The delays in the court system mean parties can forget important details. Furthermore, those who are victims of serious crimes – think, sexual violence, for example – are unable to get the prompt closure they need.




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