Crisis in the criminal justice system

The House of Lords Constitution Committee today (30 March) published a report on the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on courts and tribunals in England and Wales.*

“The House of Lords Constitution Committee’s comprehensive report on COVID-19 and the courts recognises the crisis in the criminal justice system that has resulted from decades of cuts and underfunding, and which has been exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society of England and Wales.

Court backlogs and access to legal advice

“The criminal court backlogs mean that justice is being delayed for victims, witnesses and defendants, who have proceedings hanging over them for months, if not years, with some trials now listed for 2023.

“The report rightly identifies the key part that access to legal advice, at the earliest possible stage, plays in keeping the courts running as efficiently as possible, and thus in helping tackle the backlogs. We welcome the call for the government to increase further funds available for legal aid to match the reality of the need.

“While the criminal legal aid review will hopefully provide the structural increase in resources needed for the long-term sustainability of the sector, the failure to increase payments for more than 20 years and the low volume of Crown Court trials leave the future survival of criminal legal aid firms – a crucial element of our criminal justice system – at stake.

“There is an urgent need to maximise existing court capacity and judicial sitting days, and boost capacity through many more Nightingale courts, in order to increase the amount of jury trials that can take place safely, ensuring timely access to justice for victims, witnesses and defendants.

We share the committee’s concern about the ‘unacceptable’ impact of delays and an increased remand population on children, particularly those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, which goes to the very heart of the problems in our criminal justice system.”

Technology and data

“Technology has been vital in helping our members and other court users continue to work safely during the pandemic and for administrative hearings, for example. It may make sense to continue remotely long-term, but a thorough investigation into the effect of remote justice on court users and justice outcomes is required before its widespread adoption.

“The government must also guard against the increased use of remote hearings becoming a barrier to access for justice for more vulnerable people who may not have the required technology or ability to use it, as well as ensuring that the media – as the eyes and ears of the public – has access to such hearings.

“There would need to be clear evidence of how juries sitting remotely will help to increase capacity to clear the backlogs before such a change is considered.

“We also echo and have frequently raised concerns about the absence of clear data in many areas, including on the impact on justice outcomes of the government’s court reform programme and remote hearings, and about the utilisation of Nightingale courts.

“Clarity over the timetable for implementing HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s reform programme would be welcome.”

Notes to editors

*Read the report

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