1 March: Justice Week 2021 – Coming together to tackle the impact of the pandemic
01 March 2021
To mark national Justice Week, partners working in the Local Criminal Justice Board are sharing their views on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the system over the last year.
The pandemic has had a big impact on so many aspects of our daily lives and across many support services and that has included all partners across the criminal justice system. When the pandemic hit, partners from across Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset, with representatives from police, crown prosecution service, courts, prison, probation, youth offending and victims and witness support quickly came together to form a Wessex Criminal Justice System Recovery Group.
The Group was set up to enable collaborative working across the system to work through and tackle the challenges faced as a result of the pandemic, with victims and witnesses at the heart of its work. The Group is committed to ensuring priority is given to high harm cases through collaborative work to ensure the most serious cases and those with vulnerable victims and witnesses are flagged and prioritised.
A year later the Recovery Group continues to meet weekly and despite the significant pressure the pandemic continues to place on the system, staff working across all criminal justice agencies continue their unwavering hard work and determination to get justice for victims in extremely challenging times.
We have established strong partnership working across the Wessex region and are effectively taking joint approaches to tackle common issues, which has placed partners in a relatively better position than in some other areas of the country. However we continue to face significant challenges and are focusing on embedding some vital modernisation in the system as well as moving resources around to where they are needed most at a given time.
During the early stages of the pandemic, policing adopted a four-phase approach with the public to engage, explain and encourage, and only then to enforce. This has kept the confidence of our communities during this uncertain time. During the third lockdown there has been a significant increase in enforcement nationally, increasing demand on the wider criminal justice system. Swift and safe justice will be a priority for these cases to reduce the additional burden on courts.
All courts have continued to operate during the latest lockdown and all three areas across the region have seen a continuing reduction in the outstanding cases. To increase the number of cases being heard in court a number of changes have been introduced, including:
- Utilising additional courts by opening on Saturdays
- Plexiglass screens are being fitted in courts to separate members of the jury to enable more jury trials to take place, and hearings that have more than one defendant
- Recruitment of additional legal advisors across the region to support court resources
- Nightingale courts have been set up in other areas and in Winchester the Guildhall is being used for civil and family hearings which will allow 2 additional Crown Courts to be stood up in Winchester Crown Court
The priority for the court service is the safety of all those that attend while keeping cases moving through the system. Comprehensive risk assessments have been undertaken in all court centres and these are reviewed every week. A number of new measures have been put in place in courts, all endorsed by Public Health England, to make them Covid-safe, including:
- Alterations have been made in court rooms to allow for social distancing
- Plexi glass screens installed in court rooms and jury deliberation rooms
- Deliberation rooms have been set up to allow social distancing
- Limiting numbers on site
- The wearing of face coverings
- Touchpoint cleaning
- Hand sanitising stations
- Floor markings and one way systems
- Those attending court being asked to bring their own water bottles and holy books to take the oath
During the latest lockdown there has been an increase in the use of a virtual link to the court using a cloud video platform (CVP). CVP is available in all courts across the Wessex Region and helps to reduce footfall into court buildings. Risk assessments based on Public Health England advice for each individual court site are updated every week to ensure that courts are as covid- safe as possible.
All criminal justice partners are committed to putting victims and witnesses first, ensuring that every victim and witness of crime receives a coordinated, consistent and end to end service. Within Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, this service is provided by the Witness Care Unit.
Probation has limited the staffing of courts and are increasing their virtual presence in court rooms. They have also increased the use of interviewing defendants via telephone and video to prepare Pre-Sentence Reports. The use of virtual technology is key in gaining the best possible outcomes for service users, victims and the public.
The Wessex Recovery Group continues to meet regularly to monitor and respond to the constantly changing landscape and will continue to work together to resolve issues collectively to ensure justice for victims during this exceptional time.
Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Stuart Murray, National CJ Recovery Programme and Joint Chair of the Wessex CJS Recovery Group
Naji Darwish, Deputy Chief Executive, Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire and Joint Chair of the Wessex CJS Recovery Group