Justice in crisis: Rishi Sunak urged to fully fund the courts amid growing backlog

Tristan Kirk
·4 min read
<p>The justice system was given a short-term commitment when the coronavirus pandemic struck</p> (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The justice system was given a short-term commitment when the coronavirus pandemic struck

(NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The leader of the Criminal Bar has urged the Government to commit to fully funding the courts in tomorrow’s Comprehensive Spending Review in order to stave off a “state of anarchy”.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is due to set out each ministerial department’s 2021/22 budgets, with a major financial support package for the NHS and a public sector pay freeze among the expected announcements.

The justice system was given a short-term commitment when the coronavirus pandemic struck, with no limits placed on hiring judges and the opening up of courtrooms to address a mounting backlog of cases, particularly in the criminal courts.

James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, has insisted the government must continue to bankroll the courts into next year and beyond to tackle a growing justice crisis.

In a message to fellow barristers this week, he highlighted the recent words of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, that there “must be sufficient resources to enable the courts and tribunals to work to full capacity”.

“Our most senior judge could not have been clearer. He knows the evidence. Government knows it too”, said Mr Mulholland.

“The volumes in the system, both current and anticipated, are rising. The Crown Court case backlogs were high pre-Covid due to funding cuts and are now overflowing.

“The implication is that, were the decision in the hands of the judiciary, then the judiciary would fully fund the system. However, the decision lies elsewhere. It is one for the politicians to make.

“The Lord Chief Justice has made it as simple as possible. He has given directions for government to follow. Government has made the wrong decisions before - now Treasury has an opportunity to make amends.”

The crown court backlog is at the forefront of the debate, having been allowed to rise to around 40,000 cases before pandemic thanks to cost-cutting measures including the reduction in the use of Recorders – part-time judges.

Justice minister Chris Philp MP last week confirmed to Parliament that spending on Recorders, who often take on cases that resident judges do not have time for, had been slashed in half in the two years prior to March 2020.

Due to restrictions on the operation of justice during Covid-19, the backlog has rapidly grown to more than 51,000 cases and looks set to increase further in the short term.

The Ministry of Justice has brought more than 250 courtrooms around England and Wales into use for jury trials — accounting for social distancing rules — and is hoping that figure will exceed 300 by the end of this year.

But Lord Burnett acknowledged to MPs earlier this month that the backlog would only be chipped away by around 50 cases a week even if the existing court estate was run at full capacity.

The MoJ has committed to hiring 1,600 new staff as part of an £80 million emergency package, which also includes extra ’Nightingale’ courts and portable buildings added to existing courthouses to boost capacity.

But Mr Mulholland claimed recruitment of new staff has so far “proven extremely difficult” due to significant pressures in the justice system and low pay levels.

“Many of the courts in which staff work remain in significant disrepair”, he added. “An example can be found at the Central Criminal Court where three of its six public lifts have been out of action throughout the pandemic and when only one person at a time is permitted in any lift.”

He added that lawyers are “significantly under-remunerated” and cutbacks have driven some out of the profession.

“Were HMCTS able to open the full estate of 490 courtrooms, there would, almost certainly, now be insufficient barristers or Recorders to deal with the volume of cases”, he said.

“It is time for Treasury to listen and then to take action. If it fails to heed the words of the Lord Chief Justice or to acknowledge the weekly evidence showing the direct causal link between lack of funding and delay, then there is little hope for the future.

“Government has put cost savings above people’s lives in the past; it cannot afford to do so again.”

The Chancellor is due to deliver his spending review statement at lunchtime tomorrow.

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