Courts at 'boiling point' says top barrister in plea for justice funding in Budget

‘The system cannot survive further cuts,’ Bar Council chair Sam Townend KC says  (PA Wire)
‘The system cannot survive further cuts,’ Bar Council chair Sam Townend KC says (PA Wire)

Britain’s courts are “running at boiling point” and in need of a major funding boost in this week’s Budget announcement, a top barrister has said.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt will set out future spending plans and policies on Wednesday, in his final Budget Day ahead of this year’s expected General Election.

Bar Council chair Sam Townend KC set out that money is urgently needed for the justice system, particularly in criminal and family courts.

“They are running at boiling point,” he said. “Over the last decade, funding has declined and services have diminished while demands have increased and are set to increase further. The system cannot survive further cuts.

“Justice should be seen as an area where the government can spend to save. We need urgent investment to repair our crumbling court buildings and facilities, funding for early legal advice to reduce the strain on the courts, and an injection of money into legal aid fees to stem the exodus of legal professionals from publicly funded work.”

In August last year, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk announced £220 million across two years for work to fix court buildings around England and Wales.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt on a previous Budget Day (PA Archive)
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt on a previous Budget Day (PA Archive)

But with a maintenance backlog estimated at £1 billion, Mr Townend said more is needed to continue to attract people into the legal sector, and to avoid knock-on effects on other parts of society.

“The justice system is a fundamental public service, but it has been starved of necessary funding for years,” he said.

“This is a false economy – every penny stripped from the justice sector increases costs elsewhere, through court delays and impacts on other services, such as housing, benefits, and schools.”

The backlog in the criminal courts is now at more than 65,000 cases, well above the government’s stated aim of cutting it back to 53,000 by March next year.

Sitting days for judges have been maximised, but the criminal justice system is constrained by the dwindling numbers of lawyers who are actively working in the sector.

He said extra money committed to justice would “boost barrister morale”, and help people to “have confidence in the court system”.

His words come after an announcement by HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) that the end of its digital reform programme has been extended to March next year, while the flagship Common Platform IT system will not be rolled out as extensively as first planned.

Mr Townend welcomed the “realistic” promise from HMCTS to deliver systems that worked, but said there have been “missed opportunities” since the Reform programme was announced in 2016.