London – The COVID-19 pandemic is causing an “unprecedented crisis” for some European criminal justice systems as officials try to deal with a host of unforeseen problems.
Courts, lawyers and prison officials from Belfast to Warsaw are trying to adapt systems that protect society but are cracking under the strain of the new coronavirus.
Many countries have taken similar approaches to deal with the crisis.
Austria, Britain, Germany and Poland are among those that have postponed trials, with London halting new jury cases because of social distancing restrictions.
“The COVID-19 outbreak presents an unprecedented crisis for the criminal justice system in the UK,” said a National Police Chiefs’ Council document published on April 2 that outlined new guidance for officers.
“It follows that there must be careful consideration of what new offences are fed into the system,” it added.
Northern Ireland has agreed the temporary release of 200 prisoners from jail because of the crisis.
In Poland — where the right-wing Law and Justice Party has introduced a slew of controversial judicial reforms since 2015 — most prisoners serving terms of less than three years have been released.
Portugal has granted pardons on humanitarian grounds.
In Austria, prisoners denied visits are allowed longer phone and video calls.
“The ban on visitors led to some tensions among the prisoners. So now we allow them to talk more on the phone,” Peter Bevc, a prison director in Klagenfurt, Austria, said last week.
Scotland, which has its own legal system, announced — and then dropped following an outcry — plans to suspend jury trials for up to 18 months.
– ‘Anxious times’ –
The Law Society of Scotland described the call for a suspension of juries one of “the most dramatic changes to the legal system ever considered”.
And Guido Wolf, a justice minister in Germany’s Baden-Wuerttemberg state, said hearings had been postponed.
“Our business will be severely restricted, but it will not be discontinued.”
Although human rights groups and others have noted the logic of such moves to prevent further spreading of the virus, they also warn authorities against disproportionate actions.
Penal Reform International said officials “must ensure human rights are respected” for those in prison.
“In such anxious times it is even more pertinent that people are not cut off from the outside world, they do not end up in solitary confinement, and most of all they have access to information and adequate healthcare provision,” it said.
Amnesty International highlighted concerns over Turkey’s plan to release some prisoners, but not some human rights activists.
Problems appear particularly exacerbated in English and Welsh courts, as prisons and lawyers try to tackle a growing case backlog after years of government austerity, experts said.
– Verge of collapse? –
Bill Waddington, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said the system in Britain was “creaking” before the crisis.
“The criminal justice system and those working in it have been incredibly starved of proper funding for many years and lawyers have been warning government that even before COVID the system was on the verge of collapse,” he told AFP.
Justice ministry figures released last month showed that by late 2019, there were 37,434 cases waiting to be heard at English and Welsh crown courts, a two-year high and a 13-percent increase from the previous year.
Police in England and Wales have said serious crime organisations and fraudsters should not be charged during the pandemic to avoid “clogging up” courts — as they have been labelled “lower priority”.
Similar cases include criminal damages, common assault and low-level traffic offences, according to the April 2 guidance.
Even those charged with domestic abuse should be released on bail for extended periods, it said.
On March 6, Refuge, the largest domestic abuse charity, reported a 120-percent increase in calls to its helpline.
Meanwhile, The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, has warned that some smaller legal firms could go out of business as court cases dwindle.
Waddington said it was inevitable.
“Solicitors and barristers who rely on legal aid work are working in businesses that simply will not survive the downturn,” he said.
“This was happening before COVID anyway but will certainly accelerate in the next few months.”
By David Harding