The bar today called for a ‘whole system’ review of criminal justice through a royal commission - five years after the Conservatives promised one in their last election manifesto. 

In written evidence to the Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry on reducing the backlog in criminal courts, the Bar Council notes that changes to one part of the system 'are highly capable of producing adverse results in another’. Only a whole system review 'ideally by means of a royal commission' can resolve the issues preventing elimination of the backlog.

The representative body also repeated its request for additional funding, particularly to legal aid and the court estate, and urged the Criminal Legal Aid Advisory Board and  stakeholders ‘to come through with concrete proposals to provide more, and better targeted, funds to remunerate those doing this difficult and vitally important work’.

Areas which could ‘substantially’ help with the backlog include free early legal advice; a reform of the current credit for early guilty pleas; dealing out of court with certain offences or categories of offending and improving the efficiency of prison transport and interpretation services, it said.

Bar chair Sam Townend KC said: ‘Our submission shows that the existing criminal justice policy is now at a dead end and substantial change and investment are needed to reduce the backlog.' 

Sam Townend inaugural address Jan 2024

Townend: Existing criminal justice policy now at a dead end

Source: Michael Cross

He said that recently adopted initiatives such as Operation Early Dawn and 70-day early release show how changes can lead to adverse and unexpected consequences. 'The criminal justice system can no longer operate in crisis mode, lurching from one emergency measure to another, week after week. Sticking plasters will not cut it,' Townend said. 'A wholesale policy refresh and investment in the whole justice system is needed now,'

The last royal commission on criminal justice was established on 14 March 1991 and reported two years later. A 2019 Conservative manifesto pledge promised the party would set up a royal commission; the pledge also appeared in the subsequent Queen’s speech. However in 2022 ministers indicated that the plan had been shelved. 

The Crown court backlog reached 67,492 cases in March 2024, a 12% up on the previous year. Before the pandemic, in the last quarter of 2019, the Crown court backlog stood at 37,964.


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