An unprecedented rise in the number of litigants in person and a growing caseload of sexual offences with not-guilty pleas are among factors threatening attempts to cut delays in the court system, the lord chief justice has warned.

In his annual report published today, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (pictured) also mentions ‘disruption’ because of the dispute over legal aid placing ‘a very significant burden’ on court staff. However he is upbeat about the progress of efforts to modernise IT and to bring more women into the judiciary. 

On the issue of litigants in person, the report says that the judiciary’s view ‘albeit so far unsupported by full statistical evidence’ is that cases are taking longer. Cases which might never have previously been brought or would have been compromised at an early stage ‘are often fully contested, and the take-up of mediation and ADR has reduced’, the report says.

Meanwhile, an increase of 26% in the number of sexual offence trials, which spend an average of 104 weeks in the court system compared with the 27 weeks averaged by all criminal cases, threatens to increase criminal justice delays. If the increase continues it will not be possible without the commitment of more resources to reverse the trend of longer waiting times for such cases, particularly where the defendant is on bail, the lord chief justice warns.

‘This is a matter of significant concern as the effect of delay in such cases has a particularly serious effect on both the complainant and the defendant.’

Lord Thomas also calls attention to ‘the urgent need to control the cost of civil litigation’. While the Jackson reforms ‘are playing a vital role in trying to ensure that there is access to justice for the citizen and access at a proportionate cost for businesses... it is becoming increasingly clear that steps must be taken to examine why the cost of legal services is increasing despite the significant change in the legal market and the great number of providers of legal services.

‘Competition should have reduced cost significantly, but this is not happening.’

The report says there has been ‘slow but significant’ progress in recruiting more women to the judiciary. Eight of the 38 judges in the Court of Appeal are women; there are 21 female judges in the High Court out of a total of 108 and the number of female circuit judges increased from 121 in April 2013 to 131 in April 2014.

‘The position is therefore one of improvement but it is clear that more progress must be made, particularly in recruiting those from BAME backgrounds.’

He says the judiciary is committed to the delivery of the government’s reforms to courts and tribunals administration, including a £150m IT programme. ‘This was a very significant achievement on the lord chancellor’s part and should be viewed as one of the most important opportunities for effective reform for very many years.’