Life support

Sir Bob Neill: Our courts are on life support. This government must act now


nincreasing the capacity of the courts must be a government priority over the next decade. Earlier this week the BBC rightly drew attention to the Crown Court delays and their devastating impact on those seeking justice.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the government has started to invest more in the courts. The government is focused on short-term recovery. Delays caused by the pandemic are still a major problem, for example the number of cases pending for a year or more before the Crown Court reached 25% of all cases pending in 2021. The target of the government to reduce the backlog to 53,000 by March 2025 is designed to keep the Crown Court operating as it was before Covid.

The problem is that getting close to the pre-Covid baseline is not ambitious enough. The underlying causes of court delays run deep. The Lord Chief Justice has described some of our courthouses as ’embarrassing’. We don’t have enough judges to try the cases that need to be heard and we run a real risk of not having enough lawyers to take cases to the criminal courts. These are problems that cannot be solved in the short term.

The government must take a long-term approach to providing the funding needed to modernize the courts to provide the public with the justice system they deserve. This is the clear message of the report of the justice committee on the capacity of the courts which is released this week. The government and court response to the pandemic, including the use of Nightingale courts and remote hearings, shows that we can find more resources to keep the wheels of justice turning. Now is an important time to move beyond just fixing the last problem with the justice system. It is imperative that the focus be on upgrading the domain and overall level of resources.

Data and transparency also play a key role in improving the capacity of the justice system. The government’s criminal justice scorecards are an important step in the right direction. They allow the public to see how the criminal justice system operates in their area, which is an essential first step in identifying problems causing delays and then correcting them. But we need to apply this approach to the entire justice system, including civil and family courts, which process hundreds of thousands of cases each year. We must reinstate an inspection of the courts to enhance the transparency of the judicial system and highlight possible improvements. Now is the time for the government to upgrade the judicial system, to ensure that every court has enough resources to dispense justice in a timely manner.

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