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Court capacity 'an endemic issue'

Work with offenders on this week’s Justice Committee report

The Justice Committee has called on the Government to do more to tackle the lengthy backlog facing the court system in a new report.  

The Committee, chaired by Sir Bob Neill,  warns that while innovations in the court system are welcome it will require strategic planning and long-term resourcing to address the number of cases waiting to be heard. The report is blunt about the problems facing our justice system, saying that staffing levels, particularly the number of judges, and the physical courts estate are insufficient to support the level of capacity necessary to cope with the demands placed on the court system.

The report praises the Government for investigating new ways of working, concluding that Nightingale courts have proven effective in increasing capacity quickly and the Mediation Voucher Scheme has provided alternative avenues to settle family cases. It gives a rather more cautious welcome to video and remote hearings. Overall, the Committee is concerned that these innovations are not enough to tackle the scale of demand the justice system faces.

The Committee complains that courts are frequently unavailable because they have not been maintained to a sufficient standard and says that the Government must improve planning for maintaining the estate and implement a programme of works that secures its long-term use while maintaining capacity.

Staffing

The Committee’s main concern is about staffing levels, saying that cases can only be heard if there is sufficient judicial and clerical staff to do so. It urges the Government to work closely with the Judicial Appointments Commission to ensure the recruitment of judges to areas with the greatest capacity issues. It also calls for a review of pay levels to ensure they are equivalent to similar roles in other Government departments.

Physical estate

The Committee makes it clear that the courts estate has not received sufficient funding and that is having a significant impact on capacity. The Committee formally calls on the Government to bring forward a comprehensive plan for the courts estate, showing how it plans to deliver essential maintenance without reducing capacity. It says that the use of Nightingale Courts has shown that extra capacity can be delivered quickly and should be utilised to ensure the wider court estate can be made fit for purpose.

Data collection and transparency

Many of the current problems have come about due to a failure to identify emerging trends in caseloads and understand the challenges this will place on the court system. The Committee says that the collection and quality of data collection needs to be improved if the Government is to ensure court capacity is sufficient to process cases. The Committee calls on the Ministry of Justice to dedicate funding to speed up delivery of improved data collection and provide a detailed timetable for implementation.

It praises the Government’s decision to publish justice scorecards which it says will help improve transparency and identify where there are serious issues at a local level. However, it asks the Government to “show more ambition” and set targets that need to be met across the justice system. These targets should include the average time taken from an offence being recorded to a case being completed for specific offences including rape.

Crown courts

The Committee makes it clear that the backlog of Crown Court cases will only be dealt with if a significantly higher number of trials are able to take place each month. It says that the Government should set out how many trials will need to take place each month if its target of reducing the backlog to 53,000 by March 2025 is to be achieved. It should also set out a detailed roadmap of how the necessary increase in capacity will be secured.

Summing up the report, the Committee Chair Sir Bob Neill pulled no punches:

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

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