Judges’ morale, the soaring number of litigants in person and the poor state of courtroom IT are among challenges cited by the lord chief justice in his annual report to parliament published today.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (pictured) also mentions for the first time ‘a note of caution’ following widespread opposition to the government’s new legal aid contracting regime. 

The lord chief justice says that alterations to pension arrangements have had ‘a significant impact’ on judicial morale.

‘In addition, there has, overall, been a widespread feeling of not being valued or appreciated for their work.’ He warns that ‘much remains to be achieved in order to improve morale and to ensure that the inevitable changes which will occur during the reform programme are sympathetically addressed.’

Blaming the rise in number of litigants in person on justice becoming ‘unaffordable to most’, Thomas says that the judiciary is continuing to innovate by improving procedures. 

Another cause of rising workloads is a continuing increase in reported sexual offences, and ‘an emerging trend of increase in cybercrime and crimes related to terrorism’. Thomas warns of an ‘urgent need for very significant improvement to forward projections for court business based on offences reported to the police’.

Meanwhile, outdated IT systems ‘severely impede the delivery of justice’. The IT for the judiciary currently uses an operating system so outdated that support is no longer available.

However he reveals that ‘agreement was finally reached during 2015, after many years of discussions, under which HMCTS will upgrade the judiciary to a modern system known as “e-judiciary” which provides modern software and cloud-based secured storage’.

The diversity of the judiciary remains an issue needing attention, Thomas says. While the number of female judges in the High Court and Court of Appeal are now at their highest level ever, he says it remains ‘very disappointing’ of judges from black and minority ethnic backgrounds remains at 7% across courts and tribunals. ‘However, the percentage of BAME judges under 50 years of age (12%) provides some encouragement for the future.’

On costs, he says the Jackson reforms to civil litigation ‘have largely bedded down’ and that ‘it appears that there is an improvement in costs management by judges and in costs behaviour by parties’. The judiciary will continue to press for the widespread adoption of fixed recoverable costs as recommended by Lord Justice Jackson. 

On the long-running dispute over legal aid cuts, he says that: ‘Court staff and the judiciary worked hard to minimise disruption to all court users; they should be commended for their dedication and commitment in ensuring that court business carried on.’

However in a reference to ongoing court challenges to new legal aid contracts he says: ‘A note of caution must be sounded about the effect of the delay in resolving the remaining issues in relation to legal aid.’