A group of MPs tasked with holding the government to account on public spending has little faith that the Ministry of Justice will be able to recruit enough judges to make a significant dent in the Crown court backlog.
In a highly-critical report published today, the Commons public accounts committee said it is not convinced that Dominic Raab's department can recruit enough judges to deliver on its 'meagre ambition' of reducing the backlog to 53,000 cases by March 2025. According to MoJ figures, the backlog stood at 58,350 in December 2021.
The committee pointed out that the ministry’s target relied on increasing the number of days that Crown courts hear cases from 100,000 in 2021-22 to 105,000 in 2022-23, then 106,500 in both 2023-24 and 2024-25.
‘This requires a significant increase in the number of judges, for which the department’s plan does not seem credible,’ the report says. ‘Its plans are predicated on successfully recruiting 78 full-time, salaried circuit judges. This is despite only filling 52 of 63 positions during the previous recruitment round.’
Highlighting an unintended consequence, the report adds: ‘The resulting dependence on deploying criminal barristers and solicitors as part-time judges, as well as increasing the workload of part-time judges, to make up shortfall reduces much-needed capacity within the legal profession to prosecute and defend cases.’
The committee is also concerned that the department’s push to boost judicial numbers will overlook the need to significantly improve judicial diversity.
A spokesperson for the MoJ said: ‘The Crown court backlog has fallen significantly in recent months and we are on track to get through a fifth more cases next year than in to the year running up to the pandemic. This is thanks to our half-a-billion-pounds plan to speed up justice - including unlimited court sitting days, Nightingale court extensions and greater powers for magistrates - while our £4bn prison-building programme will deliver 20,000 more places by the mid-2020s.’
The ministry pointed out that it is recruiting over 1,000 judges a year and 4,000 magistrates over the next few years, and increasing the judicial retirement age to 75. It also highlighted investment in the pre-application judicial education programme to support candidates from under-represented groups as well as a recent £1m magistrate recruitment campaign.
Law Society I. Stephanie Boyce said: 'Years of underinvestment and cuts mean there is a real risk that the capacity is simply not there in terms of solicitors and barristers, as well as judges, to do the large volume of work necessary to clear the backlog in a meaningful fashion.
'Investment is needed now across the entire criminal justice system, starting with the immediate implementation of the 15% increase in criminal legal aid rates recommended in Sir Christopher Bellamy’s independent review of criminal legal aid.'
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