Labour frontbencher David Lammy has called on the government to introduce “wartime juries” declaring that “justice cannot be delayed any further” as the backlog in criminal cases has now reached over 54,000 in the pandemic.
Responding after four criminal justice inspectorates for England and Wales warned last week that they have “grave concerns” about the justice system, the Shadow Justice Secretary urged a temporary switch to juries of seven instead of 12.
Commenting on the challenge for courts in the pandemic, Lammy argued: “The justice system is facing its gravest crisis since World War Two, leaving thousands of victims waiting too long to get justice.
“A decade of Conservative incompetence, court closures, cuts and reduced sitting days have combined with the pandemic to create a backlog of more than 54,000 cases.
“Victims of rape, murder, domestic abuse, robbery and assault are facing delays of up to four years because of the government’s failure to act.
“Justice cannot be delayed any further. Labour is calling on the government to tackle the backlog by speeding up the roll-out of Nightingale courts and temporarily introducing wartime juries of seven until the pandemic is over.”
Almost half of all courts were closed in March 2020 and jury trials were paused to minimise social interaction between court users. Following an investment of £142m and the introduction of safety measures, jury trials resumed in May.
‘Nightingale courts’ were set up as temporary courts to hear civil, family and tribunals work as well as non-custodial crime cases to ease the pressure on the courts system and tackle the number of outstanding cases.
The government announced the introduction of these Nightingale courts to address the impact of the virus but only 20 have been established so far despite Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal System advising that 200 are needed.
Lammy tabled an urgent parliamentary question last week, in which he explained that the backlog, which stood at 39,000 cases before the pandemic, is a “result of sustained attacks on the justice system by successive Conservative governments”.
410 courtrooms are currently able to hear cases across 79 Crown Courts and, of those, only 290 are deemed safe to hold jury trials. Labour has said that reducing the size of juries would increase the number able to hold jury trials.
The party has argued its proposal would reduce the risk of jurors becoming infected. Data shows that 434 staff members, 69 members of the judiciary, 23 jurors and 73 “court users” contracted Covid between November 24th and January 11th.
The Law Society called earlier this month for a two-week firebreak for all non-custody cases in magistrates and crown courts after the reported rise in coronavirus cases. But a spokesperson for HMCTS has insisted courts are “Covid-secure”.
Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett said in April last year that he would support a move to reduce the number of jurors. He argued: “Plainly, it would be easier to ensure a safe trial for everybody, with social distancing and other precautions.”