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Survive. Recover. Rebuild. Justice post Covid-19

Insights Report


Authors: Callyane Desroches, Strategy & Insight Manager | Joe Caluori, Head of Policy | James Stott, Senior Analyst | Madeline Rolfe, Analyst

Sunday 24 January 2021

“As this report makes clear, without sustained and significant investment in the courts system to eliminate chronic backlogs and delays in cases, the implications for victims and witnesses are severe. The adage, ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is still true today.
“Some of the innovative measures outlined here, such as diverting low-level offenders, are sensible but they must be done by bringing the justice system to victims and ensuring they are heard and their interests represented in any decision on whether a case goes to court or not.
“If we are to deliver justice for victims, there is urgent work to be done and this requires creative thinking from all involved and a whole-system approach.”

Victims' Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird QC

"Given the many challenges currently faced by the criminal justice system, it’s clear that there needs to be a long-term recovery plan and a new approach that goes beyond the immediate impact of Covid-19. The need to future proof our justice system, which this report identifies, is central to tackling the unacceptably high backlog in our courts and creating a resilient and sustainable criminal justice system.”

Derek Sweeting QC, Chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales

“It is imperative that positives come out of the Covid pandemic. Recovery should be seen as a launch-pad to change the well rehearsed but struggling CJS model. An overcrowded prison system, incapable of delivering the rehabilitative environment desperately needed, will not improve with 18,000 extra places. This is the time to define what the purpose of prison really is and build a CJS that delivers this purpose."

President of the Prison Governors’ Association, Andrea Albutt

“The delays and backlogs of cases identified by Crest in this important and timely report create misery for victims, leave many criminals free to continue their offending and seriously undermine confidence among the public. The report however also rightly identifies the need for more fundamental reform to a system which in the view of many has just not kept up with the changing nature of crime, the needs of victims and accepted research on the drivers of offending and the best way to prevent it.”

Sir Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police from 2008-2015


The pandemic has driven our struggling CJS to the precipice. As Crest’s modelling showed, without any further action, the court backlog – defined as all cases waiting to be processed in the courts – is projected to rapidly increase and reach an unmanageable level by 2024.

Through this research, generously funded by the Hadley Trust, we have constructed a picture of how the different parts of the criminal justice system responded to the challenges posed by Covid-19, and shown the possible impact of the pandemic in the future. We have used the ‘natural experiment’ of Covid-19 to understand what lessons there are from the response of agencies for the future of the CJS.

From survival mode to recovery mode

In response to the pandemic the criminal justice system went into ‘survival mode’. Agencies took emergency action to keep functioning but in doing so, retreated into silos. Innovative programmes were shelved. In order to move into ‘recovery mode’, the criminal justice system needs a bailout to increase capacity across the system.

To rebuild a justice system that is fit for the future, the government must urgently ramp up capacity but cannot solely rely on this. Fundamental reform designed to prevent crime and divert low-level offenders is required to reduce demand coming through the ‘front door’ and there is a need to speed up processes that are too slow. Investment in the CJS must therefore be matched by structural reform, as part of a transition to a justice system that is resilient, efficient and effective.

These changes are necessary to retain public confidence. Crest’s polling and citizen’s jury makes clear there is broad public support for reform of the CJS, particularly smarter use of technology, but they are cautious about steps which would dilute access to justice, such as limiting jury trials.

Our recommendations

This report contains five core recommendations to survive the crisis, recover and rebuild the criminal justice system.

Survive (investment to increase capacity)

1. The CJS needs a bailout to increase capacity, coping with the combined pressure of the pandemic and police officer uplift. The additional funding already pledged in October’s Spending Review (equivalent to a 1 per cent increase in MoJ’s revenue expenditure) is a start but unlikely to be enough: in particular, clearing the courts backlog will require around £400m per year, rather than the £275m promised by the Treasury and the amount of funding for prison and probation is likely to need to rise by a further 30 per cent.

2. But ramping up capacity won’t on its own be enough – there is also a need to reduce demand coming in the ‘front end’. So, the Ministry of Justice and Home Office should set out a joint strategy to strengthen the use of diversion for low-level offenders, which remains patchy and inconsistent. Police diversion schemes like ‘Checkpoint’, in County Durham, should be scaled up and rolled out across the country.

Recover (stemming the flow into the courts and reducing prison/probation caseloads)

3. At the same time, there is a need to reduce demand on the prison population, which is projected to grow under all scenarios. The quid pro quo for tougher sentences for the most serious offenders should be a reduction in the use of custody for low-level repeat offenders, with a presumption against custodial sentences of less than six months.

Rebuild (whole system approach)

4. In order to drive a more integrated approach, MoJ should return to the ‘justice devolution’ agenda, which has been allowed to wither on the vine since 2016 – piloting devolution of prison and probation budgets to Metro Mayors, which will enable pooling of budgets and joint priorities.

5. There is a need for more rigorous accountability to drive up standards across the CJS. The government should revive the Courts Inspectorate and task the new ‘National Crime Lab’ with setting standards for more effective use of technology in the CJS .

The public’s voice

According to our Citizen Jury and to a new poll, Crest found that the public backs reform of the criminal justice system to make it more effective and efficient as long as they do not contradict the core principles of justice and fairness.

More than half of people would rather see offenders electronically tagged and ordered to serve community sentences than jailed for short periods of time, according to a new survey commissioned by Crest.

The poll, conducted by YouGov, also found strong public support for some crimes to be reported online instead of in person or over the phone, with a significant number in favour of virtual court hearings.

Watch our animation summarising the report's findings

Watch report author and Crest Head of Strategy & Insight Callyane Desroches give evidence to the Commons Justice Committee, 12 January 2021


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