Government must act urgently to address the case backlog in the family and civil courts, peers said in a new report. 

In a report highly critical of sustained government failures, which have resulted in serious risks to justice and the rule of law, peers warned of the risks of significant harm – particularly from delays in the family courts.

The cross-party Constitution Committee of the House of Lords today published a raft of recommendations following an inquiry into the impact of covid-19 and the courts in England and Wales

On top of the growing criminal case backlog, peers noted that the backlog of employment and family cases has also grown significantly since the start of the pandemic, “further undermining access to justice and public faith in the justice system”.

“Prompt decision-making in the family courts is one of the essential ways in which the state protects vulnerable children. Delay can itself cause significant harm”, it states. The case backlog in the family courts now exceeds 10,000.

Yet the committee concluded that “there are likely to be significant delays in the family courts for the foreseeable future” and urgent measures are needed.

Such measures must be “demonstrably effective and well-funded… and must also be manageable for those working in the justice system, including judges, court staff and legal professionals”, said the report.

It could take three years to return to pre-pandemic levels, HMCTS has estimated – even with an increase in the number of sitting days in the family courts. But the committee said such a delay would be “unacceptable”.

In the employment tribunal, the number of outstanding cases by late February 2021 had increased by 45 per cent compared to pre-covid levels. This is expected to grow as unemployment rises in the wake of the pandemic.

There is no official number of outstanding housing possession claims. But peers heard evidence that the stay on eviction proceedings has caused a “massive backlog” and once the stay has lifted, a “tsunami of cases” could hit. 

Despite government steps to help tackle the problem, peers concluded that the backlog across the jurisdictions “remains unacceptably high”.

They said government must set out detailed plans for reducing the backlog of civil cases with a timeline for implementation.

The committee also urged government to consider alternatives to litigation via ADR and online dispute resolution to tackle the problem, but it acknowledged the financial barriers for some people. 

The committee also recommended further funding for temporary courtrooms in suitable buildings, more sitting days and greater use of retired and part-time judges.

 

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