Vigilantes “will take matters into their own hands” if trust in the criminal justice system crashes after the coronavirus pandemic, lawyers have warned.
With the backlog of court cases nearing 570,000 in England and Wales, some trials are not being scheduled until 2022 and victims face a wait of several years between reporting a crime and seeing a result.
A small number of trials have restarted but court capacity has been dramatically reduced by social distancing requirements, as crime rises with the easing of restrictions.
While crown courts are gradually reopening, there were fresh safety concerns after Manchester Crown Court was forced to close by an outbreak of coronavirus among staff last week.
Prosecutions have fallen to a record low of 7 per cent of all recorded crimes and the time taken for many types of police investigations, including into sexual offences, is rising.
Richard Atkinson, co-chair of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, said he was concerned that a growing number of people “will decide the delays are unacceptable and take matters into their own hands”.
He told The Independent: “There is a real risk that if the justice system will be so severely undermined, people may start to decide there is no point reporting matters and they should deal with them in another way themselves. When that sort of thing happens, innocent people get hurt.”
Mr Atkinson acknowledged that the warning may sound “alarmist” but pointed to mob violence against alleged paedophiles in the 2000s and the more recent rise of “neighbourhood patrols” sparked by police cuts in towns including Hartlepool.
He called the potential impact of delays caused by the court backlog “really serious”, reiterating: “If the public cannot get justice in what they perceived to be a reasonable period of time, there is a risk that they will not deal with matters through the rule of law.”
The most recent official statistics show that as of 26 July, there were 525,000 outstanding magistrates’ court cases and almost 43,700 in crown courts across England and Wales.