What can we do about the international backlog of court cases?

Published: Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

This is a blog by Renan Araujo, the Policy and Research intern at Why me?.

Justice systems across the world are facing a huge backlog of cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of outstanding Crown Court cases was already at the highest level in two years at the end of March, and this is only likely to rise as lockdown continues. All criminal trials in England and Wales have been postponed by the Lord Chief Justice, adding further pressure to the backlog. To address this issue, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) stated in its interim charging protocol that ‘there must be careful consideration of what new offences are fed into the system and how those offences are progressed.’ This challenge is not unique to the UK and raises an international question about how we can handle the backlog.

All jurisdictions affected by the pandemic are facing the same problem to different degrees. In the United States, courts are individually deciding how to address the crisis, but proceedings have been cancelled throughout Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle, for example. In Canada, juries have been cancelled and less urgent cases have been adjourned in several jurisdictions, such as in Manitoba, where the Chief Judge estimated ‘it could take up to a year and a half for the Provincial Court to catch up once the pandemic is over.’ In New Zealand, Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann has declared that the justice system had never experienced such a disruption, not even in the world wars. She also recognised that the consequences of the pandemic to the judiciary are not merely quantitative: ‘it’s not just a backlog, it’s actually individual cases which affect individual defendants, victims, witnesses.’

In developing countries, this challenge can be even more pressing. For example, the lack of infrastructure or practice to conduct virtual hearings may limit alternative procedures. But all jurisdictions still need to adapt to the new circumstances. The Supreme Court of India started conducting trials through video conferencing this month (April 2020), an innovation that may spark modernisation throughout the country’s courts. In Brazil, the National Council of Justice suspended all deadlines and is providing online training to courts nationwide to ensure that they can operate online as much as possible. The Supreme Court is already operating fully online.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing jurisdictions to think differently about how cases are handled. This could open an avenue for the wider use of Restorative Justice. Restorative Justice can address victims’ needs in these difficult times, especially in countries where there is adequate infrastructure available. In the UK, for example, many Restorative Justice facilitators are still able to work online, as Why me? have heard during our recent online forums with the Restorative Justice community. This provision can help to address the emotional needs of people affected by crime. If used sensitively, restorative approaches could also help to clear some of the backlog of cases which may not need to go through court. Using Restorative Justice in this way would continue to be helpful long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, as it is an evidence-based intervention which can help all parties affected by crime. 

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