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Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Justice backlog: MPs have little confidence in MoJ

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Justice backlog: MPs have little confidence in MoJ

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The MoJ has lost its way – that’s the underlying message from a damning report from MPs

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has lost its way – at least, that’s the underlying message from a damning report from MPs highlighting key deficiencies in how the justice backlog is being approached.

In a report published today, MPs on the public accounts committee said they have “little confidence” in MoJ plans to reduce the case backlog, particularly in the criminal justice system.

In the week ending 21 February 2021, there were 56,875 outstanding cases in the crown courts and 476,932 in the magistrates’ courts.

But neither the MoJ, under Robert Buckland’s watch since 2019, nor HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) could tell the committee what would be considered an ‘acceptable’ level of outstanding caseload. It was therefore unclear to the committee what the MoJ was aiming for in terms of plans to reduce the backlog. 

MPs said the impact of “unacceptably long waiting times” and delaying access to justice on victims and witnesses is “abundantly clear”. 

The report also concluded that the MoJ has no clear sense of prioritisation, despite significant risks across the justice system. It was also relying too much on technology to manage increased demand in the court system, with no clear understanding of how the rapid expansion of remote justice impacts on court users or justice outcomes.

The committee challenged the MoJ to set out its plans in writing, within a month, with clear projections and timeframes as to how it intends to reduce the case backlog. It also wants the MoJ to set out contingencies in the event of difficulties hampering its modernisation programmes. 

Both the MoJ and HMCTS were also criticised for lacking a grip on the data needed to understand how effective the court reform programme is and its impact on users. 

“This is particularly worrying”, states the report, “given our past recommendations and those published in the 2019 Digital Justice Report the Ministry itself commissioned.” Though the MoJ accepted all the recommendations, no tangible progress appeared to have been made.

MPs were also concerned at the clear strain frontline court users are under. It recommended that the MoJ, HMCTS and Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) should work with relevant professional bodies with a view to supporting and monitoring staff through to the end of the pandemic.

The report noted that while the major programme of building new prisons is underway, it is threatened by an eye-watering maintenance backlog of around £1 billion 

Notwithstanding recent cash injections, the committee said the MoJ’s long-term funding position remains uncertain, hampering its ability to make credible plans to address the risks it faces.

Though it welcomed the report, the Law Society said it shared many of the committee’s concerns, including the MoJ’s over-reliance on technology as a solution without having a clear understanding of the impact of remote justice.

The Society’s president I. Stephanie Boyce, said: “The backlogs pre-date the pandemic, but have been seriously exacerbated by it, and the committee is correct to wonder what the government thinks an acceptable backlog of outstanding cases is.”

She added: “The lord chief justice has also pointed out that technology can ‘have the effect of slowing down work’ and we believe that a thorough investigation into the effect of remote justice on court users and justice outcomes is required before its widespread adoption.”

“More evidence is needed before sweeping moves to adopt technology, as proposed in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, are set in stone”, added Boyce.