Covid made a growing backlog of court cases worse – but austerity created it

Kelly Grehan

In the 18 years I spent as a probation officer, things changed a lot. Like most people joining the profession in 2002, I was initially motivated by the idea of rehabilitation, but court work was an essential part of the job.

Each week, my colleagues and I would spend around two hours interviewing those recently convicted. This was for a document known as a pre-sentence report: a detailed analysis of their offence, background, circumstances, risk to the public and proposal of what sentence would be most appropriate. It provided genuine opportunity for rehabilitation of those convicted and justice for victims.

Also once a week, each of us would spend the day in the local magistrates’ court writing a quicker version of this report for people convicted of minor crimes and furnishing magistrates with information about the people appearing already on probation orders. We were part of a functioning criminal justice system.

This came to an end for me in 2011, when Woolwich Magistrates’ Court, a ten-minute walk from the Probation Office, closed and the building was sold. Gradually, we saw a decrease in cases being heard quickly. By 2017, Greenwich Magistrates and Woolwich County Court had also closed.

Greenwich wasn’t alone in losing its court. When I began working for the London Probation Area, one of many names I was to be employed by, there were 320 magistrates’ court in England and Wales. Today, there are 165.

The sale of these buildings generated at least £223m for the public purse, but of course we are now seeing the real costs. Defendants, witnesses, police, lawyers and justices now commonly travel more than 50 miles to access local justice. Cases are taking years to be heard.

In June 2021, there were more than 60,000 outstanding Crown Court cases, and more than 386,000 in the magistrates’ court. It’s not just the loss of buildings that caused the court crisis. A complete failure to appreciate those working in the criminal justice system has led to staff shortages.

In 2020, inspectors rated all of the probation divisions as requiring improvement on staffing, with none of the areas fully staffed. High rates of staff sickness averaged 11 days per person, 50% of which related to mental health difficulties, and there were 650 job vacancies nationwide.

Many of these vacancies are likely a result of the disastrous changes made to the service in 2014 by Chris Grayling, who split the service in two, with half run by private sector agencies. The ethos of the organisation was changed, and six out of ten probation officers had a workload over the 100% target. Earlier this year, the services were amalgamated – but it’s not easy to put a broken organisation back together.

It was not as if the problems were unpredictable: Grayling ignored significant warnings from within his department to push through his reforms in 2014. And since then, MPs on the public accounts committee have said the reforms were rushed through at breakneck speed, taking “unacceptable risks” with taxpayers’ money. The justice committee has described the overhaul as a “mess” and the cause of “serious issues”.

The government has had to bail out the private providers at an estimated cost of £467m. I am one of many experienced probation staff who left the profession in this era – no longer recognising the organisation as one that could change lives, but rather one that had lost its identity and purpose.

Other areas of the criminal justice system face similar crises. For example, the Criminal Bar Association has warned that clearing the backlog is being hindered by a shortage of barristers. Falling rates of pay, in large part due to cuts in legal aid over the past decade, have led to an exodus from the profession. In the four years to 2020, the pool of criminal barristers shrank by 11%, from 2,553 to 2,273. It has also become an ageing profession, with 45% of barristers who specialise in crime aged 45 or over.

Of course, it suited the government to blame this on the pandemic. But coronavirus exacerbated an already growing backlog of cases – the pandemic didn’t create it.

The new Justice Secretary Dominic Raab now wants people to be able to look up their local court online and check how quickly cases are dealt with. The new national register will give scores on the speed cases go through the system, and on the ‘quality’ of justice served, measured by the percentage of guilty pleas before cases come to court, as well as the number of cases rearranged because of problems with the prosecution.

The ratings will initially cover the whole of England and Wales, but it is understood the Justice Secretary is keen on introducing scorecards on a more regional level, so that in future members of the public would be able to look at the performance of local courts.

Now, in my experience, people don’t generally give too much thought to courts until, for whatever reason, they need to attend court themselves. What you are supposed to do with this information is a mystery. If, as a victim, you see your local court is a poor performer, you can hardly choose to take your case elsewhere.

This feels like an attempt to blame those working in the criminal justice system for the problems that were created by the Conservative Party and their Justice Secretaries playing games with the services until they could no longer function properly. A score card won’t change that.

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