The caseload for prosecutors is increasing at an “alarming rate” and could have “major consequences” for victims and witnesses, inspectors have warned.
Despite this, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has continued to provide an effective service amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report.
The latest inspection by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) said delays in cases coming to court affect “the ability of victims, witnesses and defendants to recollect the events and can impact on their willingness to attend court to give evidence”.
The report said the “challenges of the backlog and the increase in workload will have major consequences on the service provided to victim and witnesses, adding: “The increased backlog is not a statistic without consequence.
“For victims, witnesses and defendants, it means a delay in the resolution of their criminal case.”
It also said listing multiple cases for the same time to “maximise valuable court time” can “undermine the confidence of victims and witnesses” when the hearing does then not take place that day.
The outstanding CPS Crown Court caseload had reached 64,500 by December, according to the report which also highlighted how the backlog had grown by more than 55% in some areas.
The level of pressure placed on CPS staff by the growing workload “could not go on indefinitely”, the report said, as it described some as being at “breaking point”.
But inspectors were pleased to see the organisation had taken steps to try to mitigate the problem, by moving staff and resources around as well as seconding self-employed lawyers to help with the workload, adding that support for the wellbeing of employees had been good.
Although the CPS, police, courts and the judiciary were working together to address the crisis, there was evidence of some bodies prioritising their own needs, the report added.
Chief inspector Kevin McGinty said: “This report shows that through strong leadership the CPS has been able to maintain and deliver an effective service even as caseloads have increased at an alarming rate.
“The pressures faced by staff at the front line have been recognised, and the CPS has been innovative in how it has tried to manage and alleviate those pressures.
“This crisis and the greater delays in getting cases to court has the potential to further undermine any confidence victims and witnesses have in our ability to bring them justice.”
In his last report before he retires at the end of the month after six years in post, Mr McGinty described the delays and backlogs in the justice system before coronavirus as “unacceptable”.
He added: “Even before the pandemic struck the system was too dependent on the hard work and goodwill of those who work in it.
“If it is to be a criminal justice system we all want it to be it has to be appropriately resourced.”