'Extra funds needed' to clear England and Wales court backlog

Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA</span>
Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Additional government funding will be needed in years to come to tackle the accumulated backlog of crown court cases, the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has warned.

His comments were made as criminal barristers threatened to take industrial action over plans to extend working hours in the courts in an attempt to force more cases through the criminal justice system.

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The chancellor of the exchequer’s annual spending review last week promised an extra £500m for the court service which has been severely disrupted by the pandemic and has endured severe underfunding since 2010.

About 50,000 cases are waiting to be heard in the crown courts in England and Wales; two-thirds of them are expected to involve full trials.

The Ministry of Justice is introducing an extended operating hours [EOH] system to allow courts to hear more cases in a single day. Barristers and lawyers have previously opposed the scheme which they fear will result in longer, antisocial hours for lawyers.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “When it comes to action, nothing is ruled out and everything is ruled in.

“A groundswell for action has been building for months, ever since extended operating hours, admitted as discriminatory by HMCTS [Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service], were foisted upon practising criminal barristers this summer against the profession’s clearly stated opposition of which HMCTS has been aware going back to at least 2017.”

At his annual press conference on the state of the courts, Lord Burnett said increased funding from the Treasury was welcome. “Whether it is enough, we shall see,” he added. “I am quite sure that it will need to be carried forward into future years. This is not a one-off … dealing with backlogs is going to take time, inevitably.

“The volume of work coming into most jurisdictions has been growing for some time, and our assessment … is that in crime, in family and in civil, there will continue to be a growth in work … It would be enormously disappointing were the increases announced by the chancellor of the exchequer last week seen as one-off.”

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Lord Burnett said he was disturbed by the recent case in which a number of Conservative MPs had written to a judge to influence him over the sentencing of the former Tory MP Charlie Elphicke. “I am pretty confident that judges understand where the boundaries lie but I am less confident at the moment that all parliamentarians have an instinctive understanding of where those boundaries lie, and one of the things that I am concerned to think about at the moment is how we, the judiciary, can help to ensure that the understanding is deeper.”

He said he was considering drafting a note advising MPs on the constitutional boundaries that should be respected. “It does seem to me that even if it amounts to a very short briefing provided to new members of both houses of the legislature on the boundaries between our respective roles and the need to respect the independence of the judiciary, that is something that we … will have discussions about.”

Another three “Nightingale” court rooms are to open at the Ministry of Justice’s headquarters, the MoJ has announced.

The move follows an additional £30m to deliver a further 40 Nightingale court rooms to increase court capacity.

Appearing before the justice select committee, Robert Buckland QC, the justice secretary, said he did not believe cases are delayed as far ahead as 2023 because of the backlog of cases in the crown courts. He agreed, however, that cases have been listed to be heard in 2022.