Justice Committee calls for renewed focus to tackle endemic capacity issues in courts
27 April 2022
The Justice Committee has called on the Government to do more to tackle the lengthy backlog facing the court system. In a report published today (Wednesday), the Committee warns that while innovations in the court system are welcome it will require strategic planning and long-term resourcing to address the number of cases waiting to be heard. At present, staffing levels, particularly the number of judges, and the physical courts estate are insufficient to support the level of capacity necessary to cope with the demands placed on the court system.
The willingness of the Government and the Judiciary to investigate new ways of working, including in their response to the additional challenges of the pandemic, is welcomed. Nightingale courts have proven effective in increasing capacity quickly and the Mediation Voucher Scheme has provided alternative avenues to settle family cases. Video and remote hearings proved effective in continuing justice during the pandemic, however the impact on those utilising the justice system should be carefully reviewed before further roll-out. As positive as these measures are, they will prove insufficient in overcoming the scale of demand the justice system faces.
Courts are frequently unavailable as they have not been maintained to a sufficient standard. The Government must improve planning for maintaining the estate and implement a programme of works that secures its long-term use while maintaining capacity. Recruitment and retainment of staff will also need to improve with better identification of areas where shortages are acute.
The inspection regime for the courts system should also be strengthened so that it can scrutinise progress in improving court administration and improve best practice. The Committee is particularly concerned that the civil, family and coroner courts do not currently have an inspector. Accordingly, the Committee has recommended that the Government re-establish a Courts’ Inspectorate with updated and broadened terms of reference.
The collection of data is also not currently sufficient to identify where there are problems and to inform decision-making. The Government should build on current plans to implement scorecards and ensure that it invests in improving the quality of the data it collects.
Publishing the report, Chair of the Justice Committee Sir Bob Neill said:
“In response to the huge backlog facing courts an impressive commitment to innovation has emerged. The speed with which Nightingale Courts have been established, the use of digital technology and attempts to boost mediation instead of going to family court are all welcome. However, this alone will not have the necessary impact to tackle the scale of the capacity issues facing courts.
“The Government must work with the Judiciary to ensure that there is sufficient staff and court space to allow trials to take place and the lengthy backlog to reduce. The physical estate has been left to crumble for too long and must be made fit for purpose. There must be sufficient numbers of judicial and clerical staff to cope with the volume of cases.
“Understanding of the demand on courts needs to improve so that long-term planning can be based on an accurate picture of likely demand. Data should be collected of sufficient quality to allow long-term trends to be understood. There also needs to be better oversight of performance with key parts of the justice system currently without any inspection regime in place.
“The court system is creaking and there needs to be coherent, consistent planning to fix it.”
Key findings and recommendations:
Cases can only be heard if there is sufficient judicial and clerical staff to do so. The Government needs to work closely with the Judiciary and Judicial Appointments Commission to ensure the recruitment of judges to areas with the greatest capacity issues. Pay levels must also be reviewed to ensure they are equivalent to similar roles in other Government departments.
The courts estate has not received sufficient funding and that is having a significant impact on capacity. Hearings cannot be held if the courts are not in a fit state to accommodate them. The Committee calls on the Government to bring forward a comprehensive plan for the courts estate, showing how it plans to deliver essential maintenance without reducing capacity. The use of Nightingale Courts has shown that extra capacity can be delivered quickly and should be utilised to ensure the wider court estate can be made fit for purpose.
The Ministry of Justice also needs to demonstrate better planning and deliver a court reform programme focused on maintaining the estate in the long term. This should include regular updates on the progress of each project within the programme, its expected completion date and final cost.
There are significant gaps in the inspection regime for the justice system, with no inspectorate currently overseeing the civil, family or coroner courts. The Committee calls for a Courts’ Inspectorate to be established to improve accountability and transparency in the justice system. By undertaking inspections and examining data it could make recommendations to improve policy and guidance in all aspects of the justice system, as well as monitoring how new technologies are used.
Data collection and transparency
Many of the current problems have come about due to a failure to identify emerging trends in caseloads and understand the challenges this will place on the court system. The collection and quality of data collection needs to be improved if the Government is to ensure court capacity is sufficient to process cases. The Committee calls on the Ministry of Justice to dedicate funding to speed up delivery of improved data collection and provide a detailed timetable for implementation.
The development of scorecards will help improve transparency and identify where there are serious issues at a local level. However, the Government should show more ambition and set targets that need to be met across the justice system. These targets should include the average time taken from an offence being recorded to a case being completed for specific offences including rape.
Nightingale courts have proven an effective way of increasing capacity and the lease extensions for a number of sites is welcome. The creation of super-courtrooms has also proved a welcome innovation to overcome the challenges to holding multi-defendant trials during the pandemic.
There have also been significant improvements in the capacity to facilitate hearings remotely. Allowing vulnerable victims and witnesses to pre-record evidence in advance of Crown Courts trials is a positive move and there are also advantages to advocates attending hearings remotely, although it may be in the interest of justice to attend in person for the most serious criminal cases. Remote video remand hearings in magistrates courts, while an essential feature of continuing justice during the pandemic, are difficult to coordinate, may leave defendants feeling disconnected from the court process and ineffective in reducing backlogs.
The report finds that, while technological solutions can play an important role in improving how the justice system operates, the practical and procedural implications should be thoroughly reviewed before further rollout.
The backlog of Crown Court cases will only be dealt with if a significantly higher number of trials are able to take place each month. The Government should set out how many trials will need to take place each month if its target of reducing the backlog to 53,000 by March 2025 is to be achieved. It should also set out a detailed roadmap of how the necessary increase in capacity will be secured.
The decision to reduce the number of sitting days in 2019 was a mistake and should serve as a lesson for future decision making on court capacity. The Ministry of Justice should set out how it plans to increase judicial capacity in the long term and how it arrives at these decisions.
The Committee welcomes the Government’s openness to finding new solutions to deal with issues in Family Courts, however it warns that far greater cross-governmental attention will be needed to deal with the growing number of cases. It calls for the development of a specific action plan to ensure adequate capacity in the system and improve the quality of support for separating couples and their children.
The Mediation Voucher Scheme has shown that new innovations can make a meaningful contribution to reducing capacity issues, however the Committee finds that there will need to be a range of options for separating families if the scale of the challenge facing the system is to be met.