Sustained investment needed for courts to recover
The Justice Committee yesterday (7 July) published the UK government’s response to its report into court capacity.* Sustained investment is required to enable the overstretched justice system to recover from years of underfunding and cuts, exacerbated by the pandemic, warns the Law Society of England and Wales.
Court backlogs and legal aid
“Courts are now operating at full physical capacity, but the backlogs are decreasing at an extremely slow pace,” said Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce.
“More than a quarter of outstanding Crown Court cases have been open for a year or more. It is simply not acceptable that victims, witness and defendants are still having to wait so long to access justice.**
“After years of underfunding and cuts there aren’t enough judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers to deal with this huge volume of work.
“Legal aid rates must increase as a matter of urgency, otherwise we will see the permanent departure of more and more criminal defence solicitors, barristers and law firms, at a time when they are needed the most.
“At the heart of the court system is the public trying to access justice. People in both the civil and criminal courts are facing unprecedented and unacceptable delays.
“Mediation – which has been pushed by the government as an answer to reducing the family court backlog – is only one solution.
“Early legal advice for family law cases should be restored, so fewer cases go to court and solicitors can instead assist in negotiated settlements, referral to mediation and can better manage client expectations.”
Court estate and court reform
“We have been raising the crumbling state of our court buildings for some time now and our members – and all court users – need more clarity on what the government intends to do about it,” said I. Stephanie Boyce.
“When there is such a vast backlog, the criminal justice system can ill afford to lose sitting days because of heating failures for example.
“We also question whether the court reform programme can be completed in the timescale suggested. The end date remains unchanged despite many projects being paused during the pandemic.
“Rushing the roll out of services risks them not being fit for purpose and besieged with issues, as we have seen with Common Platform – the new courts case management system.
“There should be transparency over what can realistically be achieved rather than risking additional strain on the court service when it is already struggling with delays and admin pressures.”
“We would welcome improved court data collection and emphasise the need to share such data in a timely and transparent fashion and in a legible format,” said I. Stephanie Boyce.
“Continued engagement over proposals to improve the court service and address court recovery is also key to such initiatives being successful.
“We will continue to closely monitor how the government handles the ongoing issue of court capacity.”
Notes to editors
• **See the criminal court statistics quarterly: January to March 2022
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