The lord chief justice is unable to bring down the justice backlog as fast as he would like because there are not enough judges, staff, courts and technology – criticising ‘years of budgetary squeezes’ in a speech heard by the lord chancellor.
Lord Burnett of Maldon told the Lord Mayor’s annual dinner for HM Judges last night that not all the commentary on outstanding caseloads had been accurate but delays caused by Covid ‘have exposed the implications if the justice system is not working smoothly and quickly’.
The lord chief justice said: ‘We have done well to limit the growth in outstanding cases. But we cannot now reduce levels as fast as we would like. Years of budgetary squeezes have reduced the resilience and flexibility of the courts and tribunals, limiting capacity. We do not currently have enough judges or staff and lack both the quantity and quality of buildings and technology necessary.
‘I am grateful to the lord chancellor for having secured additional funding for the changes needed to enable our buildings to continue to operate and urgently to provide additional technology and staff to support it. That, however, is just the beginning. If we value justice, sufficient funding must be provided, not just as a temporary stopgap, but on a sustained basis. It was encouraging to hear the prime minister restate in parliament only a fortnight ago his support for further funding.’
He added that it was fortunate that the modernisation programme was underway when the pandemic struck. ‘That enabled much to happen which otherwise would have been impossible. Yet with full digitisation, better equipment and a bespoke video conferencing facility we could have done much more. It would be unforgivable if the courts were not better equipped were another crisis to strike.’
Minutes later, Robert Buckland told the event he had invested in extra staff, improved technology and additional Nightingale courtrooms.
In his speech, the lord chief justice also appeared to deliver a warning to the government, which is planning to review the Blair administration’s 2005 Constitutional Reform Act.
Lord Burnett said the independence of the judiciary was given statutory protection over 300 years ago. ‘Reputations can take a long time to establish but can be dissolved in an instant, sometimes inadvertently. The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary should be cherished by all, and it will remain part of my function to nourish both.’