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Report published on the impact of COVID-19 on courts and tribunals in England and Wales

30 March 2021

The Constitution Committee publishes its 22nd report of the session and the first of three reports on the constitutional implications of COVID-19, focussing on the impact of the pandemic on courts and tribunals in England and Wales.

Inquiry background

Soon after the start of the pandemic, the House of Lords Constitution Committee began an inquiry into the constitutional implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this first report, the Committee considers the impact of the pandemic on courts and tribunals in England and Wales.

Key findings

Key findings of the report include:

  • Reduced funding for the justice system left our courts and tribunals in a vulnerable condition going into this period of crisis. Over the decade preceding the pandemic, Government funding fell significantly, legal aid budgets were radically reduced and court buildings were closed. These pre-existing challenges exacerbated the devastating impact of the pandemic on courts and tribunals in England and Wales.
  • The sudden shift to remote hearings, necessary to maintain the operation of the justice system during the pandemic, has had an uneven impact across the courts service. Senior courts, and those dealing with commercial cases, adapted relatively well. The lower courts, which deal with the majority of cases, and those litigants who are most vulnerable, have had a more difficult time.
  • Operational changes introduced in response to the pandemic should not be regarded as irreversible where they have risked undermining access to justice, open justice or consistency in the application of the law. The Committee recommends that the Government continues to invest in and develop the technology for remote hearings and the guidance to support it, learning the lessons from its use during the pandemic. There should be an ongoing process of engaging with researchers and the legal sector to ensure that access to justice is secured via remote hearings.
  • Interruption to the normal operation of the courts has had a detrimental impact on the publicly funded and legally aided sectors of the legal profession, worsening barriers for accessing legal representation. The Committee recommends that the Government further increases the legal aid budget to meet the new challenges for access to justice that have arisen during the pandemic.
  • The challenges of delivering courtroom-based justice during the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on the flow of cases through the courts and it may take several years before the backlog of criminal, family and employment cases returns to pre-pandemic levels. The human cost of the backlog can be measured in part by defendants being held on remand in prison for longer, litigants and victims waiting longer for justice, and a greater likelihood of evidence being lost or forgotten during the lengthier waits for a hearing. The Committee recommends that the Government sets out a plan for addressing the backlog that will reduce it well below pre-pandemic levels. This should include plans to make maximum use of existing real estate, open more Nightingale courtrooms, increase the number of sitting days and increase the number of part-time and retired judges sitting. All of this will require additional investment by the Government.
  • The difficulties faced by the justice system during the pandemic have been exacerbated by a lack of data across the court service. Without adequate data, fundamental questions about the operation of our justice system remain unanswered. The Committee recommends that the Government make clear commitments to data reform across the courts service, prioritising the collation of data that will enable it to identify the effects of remote hearings on non-professional and vulnerable court users.

Chair's comment

Baroness Taylor, Chair of the Constitution Committee said:

“There has been a monumental effort by all working in courts and tribunals to maintain a functioning justice system in recent months. We applaud the hard work of all those who have supported court users in these very difficult circumstances.

“However, recognition of the significant achievements in responding to the pandemic should not obscure the scale of the challenges that the courts continue to face.

“The courts system was not well prepared for disruption on the scale caused by the pandemic. Courts funding had fallen significantly in real terms over the preceding decade and a programme to modernise court technology was struggling to deliver the improvements needed.

“There is much work to be done to address the constitutional consequences of the pandemic for the courts. The Government needs to renew its vision and increase the funding to achieve it. For justice to be done, and be seen to be done, considerable new effort and investment is required.”

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