‘Crumbling’ criminal justice system hampered by £1bn repair bill and lack of judges - MPs

·5-min read
Ministry of Justice (MoJ)
Ministry of Justice (MoJ)

MPs have demanded a plan from government to tackle a £1 billion court maintenance backlog and a lack of judges which are hampering the criminal justice recovery.

Courthouses have been left in a “poor condition” thanks to years of underfunding, the House of Commons Justice Select Committee said, after the Lord Chief Justice branded some buildings “an embarrassment”.

In a report on the state of the justice system, the committee’s MPs urged the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to draw up a comprehensive plan to improve the state of court buildings around the country.

And they highlighted that there are less judges now than there were a decade ago, leaving the courts unable to hear as many cases as possible.

The report comes after a 21-month investigation into the capacity of the justice system, including technological reforms which have been accelerated by the pandemic and plans for recovering from a criminal justice backlog of more than 58,000 cases.

Questions on repairs to courts, Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon told the committee they “have some buildings that are, frankly, an embarrassment that I do not think members of the public as users of our courts, the staff working in the courts or the judges also working in the courts should be expected to tolerate.”

Former HM Courts and Tribunals (HMCTS) chief executive Kevin Sadler said last month that the maintenance backlog is estimated to be around £1 billion, and he acknowledged that courtrooms sometimes have to be taken out of action.

“Too many times, we lose courtrooms at the moment due to heating failures or air-conditioning failures”, he said.

The committee heard the government has committed £105 million extra for building maintenance in 2021, and Mr Sadler said Covid had increased the pressure on court buildings due to having to run heating and ventilation constantly on safety grounds.

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab accepted failing to invest in the maintenance of the courts is “a false economy”, while Lord Burnett hit out at the lack of a long-term plan for repairing the court.

“When money has been very tight”, he said, “one looks around for the worst leak in the boat and you then plug a particular leak, but there is nothing to make the vessel seaworthy in the long term.”

The committee’s report concluded: “The maintenance backlog in the court estate is a serious problem. While there are some good court buildings, far too many are in a poor condition.

“This is having a negative effect on other elements of court capacity and, if not addressed, risks undermining the delivery of the high-quality justice system which this country expects.”

It praised the Nightingale Courts programme which delivered extra court rooms during the pandemic, and called on the government to draw up a fully-funded multi-year plan to tackle court repairs and capacity.

The MoJ and HMCTS was criticised by the committee for “missed opportunities” due to holes in data collection and an inability to assess the problems in the courts.

And the Lord Chief Justice highlighted the problem of a judge shortage and struggles to recruit enough new people to fill the void.

“Crown court sitting days were quite severely cut in the years before Covid, and the result was that the number of Crown Court judges was also reduced”, he said in his November evidence session.

“We are struggling in some parts of the country to provide the judicial resources necessary to do all the work in the Crown court that we want to do.”

Identifying London as a “particular problem”, the country’s top judge said retired judges have been brought back into service, while senior barristers have sat more as part-time judges. However that has depleted the number of lawyers able to argue cases.

“The Government, the Judiciary and the Judicial Appointments Commission should work closely together to address the challenges in recruiting judges in those areas where there is the greatest need for increased capacity”, concluded the committee.

Commenting on the report, Justice Committee chairman Sir Bob Neill said the courts had shown an ”impressive commitment to innovation”, particularly in video technology.

But he said: “This alone will not have the necessary impact to tackle the scale of the capacity issues facing courts.

“The Government must work with the Judiciary to ensure that there is sufficient staff and court space to allow trials to take place and the lengthy backlog to reduce. The physical estate has been left to crumble for too long and must be made fit for purpose. There must be sufficient numbers of judicial and clerical staff to cope with the volume of cases.

“Understanding of the demand on courts needs to improve so that long-term planning can be based on an accurate picture of likely demand. Data should be collected of sufficient quality to allow long-term trends to be understood. There also needs to be better oversight of performance with key parts of the justice system currently without any inspection regime in place.

“The court system is creaking and there needs to be coherent, consistent planning to fix it.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The Committee rightly recognises that our decisive action kept justice moving during the pandemic and the Crown Court backlog is now falling.

“We have launched a recruitment drive for more judges and magistrates and spent more than £150 million over the past year on court building improvements to deliver the swift access to justice victims deserve.”

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