The lord chancellor has told MPs the decision not to step up efforts to cut the backlog of criminal cases was not political - contradicting comments made by the senior presiding judge in the summer.
Robert Buckland QC MP was grilled yesterday by the House of Commons justice select committee on the backlog of criminal cases, trial delays and court sitting day allocations.
Told that the number of courts sitting empty has increased, Buckland said: 'There has been a downturn in receipts to the Crown court, an increase in family law cases which meant we had to increase resources there...We do have to adjust our priorities according to the evidence. It's not an exact science and it's not easy.
'I don't like to see courts lying empty at all. I was a recorder myself - I know the feeling if you're struggling to meet your allocation because there just isn't a sitting day available. But I can't govern the receipts that come in as a result of charges. We anticipate with the 20,000 extra police officers we will see an uptake in those receipts but it is not, I'm afraid, an exact science.'
Committee chair Bob Neill told Buckland that 'common sense says if there's a drop in receipts, that's the absolute opportunity to reduce the backlog positively. Why is that not being done? It's a political decision, isn't it lord chancellor?'
'It certainly is not,' Buckland replied, before Neill quoted the senior presiding judge's letter to the Bar Council, which stated that the decision not to cut the backlog further was political.
Buckland said: 'I think what she was referring to there was it was a decision made in the department as opposed to a decision made by judges.'
Neill asked whether it was fair to say the decision was down to budgetary issues.
Buckland said: 'It's difficult for me to sometimes hide my frustration as somebody who has come to the helm of a justice system that I care deeply about, I want to do more. I hear what's being said by my colleagues and friends. This is about users of the system as well, this is about victims of crime, witnesses, all the people who use the system. This isn't some producer-led interest as far as I'm concerned, this is about the quality of justice that we deliver.'
Buckland was also asked about the courts reform programme. Highlighting a rise in the number of people choosing to use online services, he said: 'I don't sit here as a lord chancellor who blithely pretends somehow we can have virtual courts the length and breadth of the country. We're still going to need good old-fashioned courtrooms.
'The court experience, the solemnity of those proceedings, is something that should never be underestimated, particularly in the giving of evidence by witnesses. And I don't want to lose that, especially when we have a generation now coming of age, which doesn't know what the world was like before the internet. And trying to make sure there is a continued understanding of the solemnity and importance of court proceedings before a judge at any level.'