Kent court cases delayed for two years amid Covid backlog

Maidstone Crown Court

By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan

Hundreds of people are waiting for their court cases to be heard in Kent amid “substantial” delays within the criminal justice system, says a police chief.

Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott expressed his “disappointment” that some crown court trial hearings have been pushed back to January 2023.

Victims and defendants are facing two-month hold-ups for magistrates’ court hearings, such as for speeding and drink-driving, due to Covid.

At its peak, the workload going through Kent courts doubled in the pandemic, with “many hundreds” of cases caught up in delays, says Mr Scott’s office.

Pressure has been put on Boris Johnson’s government to introduce pop-up courts across the country to urgently expand capacity and ease pressure on ageing sites which do not have “sufficient space” to manage social distancing.

Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott

In an interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr Scott said: “We have been seeing substantial delays of court cases being presented to the Crown Prosecution Service and the times which they are getting to court.

“I know there are cases listed for January 2023 because the court service has not ramped up enough capacity to get those victims justice.”

Almost half of all courts across England were closed and jury trials paused last March to minimise social interaction. Amid Covid, the government has tried to keep the justice system running, some have moved to remote technology.

To keep the wheels of justice turning in Kent, legal teams have been working with their Sussex neighbours to manage the backlog.

Protective screens have also been installed in courts to ensure juror deliberation rooms are Covid-secure, according to the Ministry of Justice.

But there have been problems with courts reopening as some staff have needed to self-isolate, along with lawyers, victims, witnesses and defendants.

Maidstone Crown Court has remained mostly open but concerns over the more transmissible Kent mutant variant forced jury trials to be put on hold in November.

Canterbury Crown Court reopened its doors from June 8 after a three-month UK-wide lockdown and jury trials resumed on June 29, says the government.

Councillors called for action to speed up the justice process at a virtual County Hall meeting involving the Kent and Medway police and crime panel yesterday,

Folkestone and Hythe District Council deputy leader, Cllr Jennifer Hollingsbee (Con), said: “Anything the commissioner can do to move that forward would be a really good thing.”

Last July, UK ministers agreed to create 10 temporary ‘Nightingale’ courts in England where hearings are held in non-court buildings, such as the Ministry of Justice HQ in London, Middlesbrough Town Hall and Peterborough Cathedral.

“Kent desperately needs a Nightingale court,” urged Mr Scott. He also told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “We need those resources as soon as possible, otherwise victims will lose faith in the court system.”

The Ministry of Justice, a major government body which oversees the court system, has not ruled out the move, but no specific sites have been revealed.

In response to Mr Scott’s demands, a spokesman for HM Courts & Tribunals Service said: “We continue to explore options for more Nightingale courts.”