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Court case delays and state of legal aid examined by Justice Committee

11 January 2021

The House of Commons Justice Committee is to gather evidence about delays in criminal and civil court cases exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the continuing severe restraints on the provision of legal aid. Senior legal practitioners and experts have been invited to testify before a virtual public Committee session to be broadcast on at 2.30 pm on Tuesday 12 January.

The information gathered will feed into the Committee’s inquiries titled ‘Court Capacity’ and ‘The Future of Legal Aid’. Among those to testify at the January 12 session will be the new Chair of the Bar Council, Derek Sweeting QC.

The session will be organised into two virtual panels. The first panel will look mainly at the criminal (Crown and Magistrates) courts. The second panel will look across the various civil and criminal courts.

On the outstanding number of cases in the criminal courts – which official figures in November 2020 put at over half a million – the Committee will hear from the think tank, the Institute for Government, and the crime and justice consultancy, Crest Advisory.

In October 2020 Crest Advisory published a report which said the combined effect of long- term backlogs over many years, as well as the effects of Covid-19, are “leading the justice system to the brink of a ‘tipping point’ beyond which it may cease to function in a meaningful sense”.

In November 2020 the Institute for Government said the way the Government calculates the number of outstanding Crown Court cases gives a misleadingly low figure. This was because, according to the think tank, the cases in the backlog were complex cases which would take longer to finish than most.  

Cuts to government spending on legal aid and reductions in the fees payable to legal aid practitioners since 2012 have forced law firms operating in this area out of the market. There has been a further reduction in work due to the pandemic-induced contraction of the economy. In 2010, government data showed there were 1,861 criminal legal aid firms in England and Wales. In 2020 there were 1,146.

Both the Bar Council (representing barristers) and the Law Society (representing solicitors) have already given the Committee evidence criticising reductions in the Government’s funding of the criminal justice system in general and legal aid fees in particular. The January 12 evidence session will be an opportunity to examine and update this evidence.

Witnesses

Tuesday 12 January

At 2.30pm

Panel 1

  • Thomas Pope, Senior Economist, Institute For Government
  • Callyane Desroches, Strategy and Insight Manager, Crest Advisory

Panel 2

  • Beverley Higgs JP, Chair, The Magistrates Association
  • Richard Miller, Head of Legal Aid, The Law Society
  • Derek Sweeting QC, Chair, Bar Council

Further information

Image: MoJ