Urgent action is needed to tackle an “unprecedented backlog” of court cases built up in England and Wales during the pandemic that has “severe implications” for victims, the four justice chief inspectors have warned.

The plight of prisoners locked up for most of the day because of Covid-19 and disruption to services for young offenders were also highlighted in a report by the inspectors of probation, police, prisons and the Crown Prosecution Service.

They expressed “grave concern” in particular about the situation in courts – already struggling with a “chronic backlog” of cases – which they said constituted the greatest threat to the proper operation of the criminal justice system.

Those accused of crimes also faced delays in their opportunities to defend themselves while defendants were kept on remand for longer periods.

The number of ongoing cases in crown courts was 44% higher in December 2020 compared with February, while the latest figures show more than 53,000 cases are waiting to come before crown courts. Some of these cases have been scheduled for 2022.

Pressure for more funding to help Covid-stricken courts also came from the Bar Council, which called separately for the creation of dozens of additional “Nightingale courts” to help with demand during the pandemic, investment of £55m to recruit and retain staff, and for non-means-tested legal aid to be made available for all domestic abuse cases.

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