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

·2-min read
Judges congregate in Westminster Abbey before their Annual Service of Thanksgiving on October 1, 2012 in London, England (Getty Images)
Judges congregate in Westminster Abbey before their Annual Service of Thanksgiving on October 1, 2012 in London, England (Getty Images)

Increasing the capacity of the courts needs to be a government priority over the next decade. Earlier this week the BBC rightly drew attention to delays in the Crown Court and their devasting impact on those waiting for justice.

Since the start 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 causing major issues, for example, the number of cases that have been outstanding for a year or more in the Crown Court reached 25 per cent of the overall outstanding caseload in 2021. The Government’s target of reducing the backlog to 53,000 by March 2025 is designed to get the Crown Court operating as it was pre-Covid.

The problem is that getting close to the pre-Covid baseline isn’t ambitious enough. The underlying causes of delays in the courts are deep-rooted. The Lord Chief Justice described some our court buildings as an “embarrassment”. We don’t have enough judges to try the cases that need to be heard and we are at a real risk of not having enough lawyers to take cases in the criminal courts. These are problems that can’t be fixed in the short-term.

The Government needs to take a long-term approach to providing the funding to upgrade the courts to provide the public with the justice system it deserves. This is the clear message of the Justice Committee’s report on court capacity which is out this week. The Government and the courts’ response to the pandemic, in particular through 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 moment to go beyond simply fixing the latest problem in the justice system. It is imperative that the focus turns to upgrading the estate and the overall level of resourcing.

Data and transparency also play a key part 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 is performing in their local area, which is a vital first step to identifying the issues causing delays and then putting them right. But we need to apply this approach across the justice system, including to the civil and family courts, which deal with hundreds of thousands of cases every year. We need to re-establish a courts’ inspectorate to enhance the transparency of the justice system and highlight how improvements can be made. Now is the right time for the Government to level up the justice system, to ensure that every court is sufficiently resourced to deliver justice in a timely fashion.