Clear plans and investment needed to tackle the court backlogs
The government must provide clarity on its plans for the courts after 21 June when legal limits on social contact may be lifted, the Law Society of England and Wales said, as safety concerns continue and the backlog of cases grows.
The Law Society has written to HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) emphasising the need for clarity over future plans for the courts estate during the ongoing pandemic and the need for increased capacity to help tackle more than 56,000 outstanding Crown Court cases.*
“Our members and other court users need to know what the plans are for the courts beyond 21 June,” said Law Society president David Greene.
“What social distancing measures will still be in place in courts? When are the courts expected to return to full capacity? What are the long-term plans for investment in Nightingale courts?
“Whilst the roll out of the vaccination programme is hugely encouraging, we have to be aware that the risk of a third COVID wave in the autumn remains.
“It is for this reason that we reiterate the importance of additional capacity, not only from a safety perspective but also to ensure the growing court backlogs can be addressed.
“Backlogs mean that justice is being delayed for victims, witnesses and defendants, who have proceedings hanging over them for months, if not years, with trials now listed for 2023.
“We have supported the opening of Nightingale courts to help tackle the backlog but we were recently made aware of the closure of a venue, with a further closure due at the end of March, as a result of the licence agreements ending.
“If swift further action is not taken to increase capacity in a meaningful and safe way, case delays will continue to increase and more and more victims, witnesses and defendants will be denied access to justice.
“It is also vital the government does not impose any artificial restriction on the number of judicial sitting days, as happened prior to the pandemic, as this was a significant contributor to the current backlog.”
Members’ safety concerns have been reinforced by London’s Isleworth Crown Court failing a COVID safety inspection by the Health and Safety Executive. Public Health England has carried out inspections of the cell areas at only two Crown Courts since May 2020 and staff at two Crown Courts voted to strike over COVID-19 safety concerns.
“Although we may be seeing a planned exit from restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19, it remains essential that all court users can be assured of the safety of the court environment,” added David Greene.
“This underlines the imperative for a clear plan and investment to maintain capacity and court safety.”
Notes to editors
*As of week ending 21 February, there were 56,875 outstanding cases in the Crown Courts and 476,932 in the magistrates’ courts.
About the Law Society
The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.
Press office contact: Nick Mayo | 020 8049 4100