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Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

'Justice depends on government': Peers publish damning report

'Justice depends on government': Peers publish damning report


The quality of justice is increasingly at risk and it's the government's fault, peers have concluded in a comprehensive report 

The quality of justice is increasingly at risk and it’s the government’s fault, peers have concluded in a comprehensive report.

It comes hot on the heels of a damning report from the Commons’ public accounts committee which revealed MPs have “little confidence” in the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) plans to reduce the justice backlog. 

Now, the cross-party Constitution Committee of the House of Lords has published a report on covid-19 and the courts in England and Wales, and warned that without further action “our much-cherished justice system remains at risk”. Particularly at risk are vulnerable court users and those with protected characteristics.

The report follows the committee’s inquiry into the constitutional impact of covid-19 and the government response, particularly parliament’s ability to hold the government to account, scrutiny of emergency powers and the operation of the courts.

The first of three reports focuses on the committee’s conclusions on the impact on the courts, citing the “devastating impact” of covid-19 on the courts. 

It blames continued government failures and a big fall in government funding over the past decade for a justice system now unable to cope. “An alarming consequence is the reduction in prosecutions and convictions,” said the report.

Criminal justice depends on government “setting out a clear timeframe for solving the unacceptably high backlog and for reducing the numbers of adults and children held in custody awaiting trial”.

Peers said the case backlog was neither “acceptable nor inevitable” and temporary Nightingale courts are nowhere near a sufficient response 

The justice system needs clear government vision and increased funding to recover from pandemic, it added.

As well as undermining the rule of law, access to justice and the risk of damaging public confidence in the justice system, the report warned: “The quality of justice is increasingly at risk as witness memories fade over time.” 

Courtrooms must not sit idle and maximum use must be made of existing facilities, the committee said. Peers also called for further funding for HMCTS to significantly increase the number of open Nightingale courtrooms by the end of this year

Peers also warned: “The rapid adoption of remote hearings has risked excluding vulnerable and non-professional court users.”

Referring to the “paucity of data collection and publication across the courts system” the report said transparency is undermined and it is harder to identify deficiencies and improve access to justice. 

All of this, say the Committee, is threatening to undermine access to justice.

Yet the absence of robust, in depth data on the operation of courts system is a long-standing problem, according to the committee. It called on HMCTS to catalogue the data with “clear timelines for making  appropriate data available to the general public”.

The committee also expressed serious concerns about remote justice. It said that though virtual proceedings are “necessary to maintain the operation of the justice system during the pandemic, the practical challenges of remote hearings have risked undermining or excluding participants and damaging access to justice”.

The Committee recommended more research so that the adverse effects of online proceedings are mitigated and to maintain faith in the administration of justice.  

Committee chair Baroness Taylor said: “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,” she added. “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.” 

Responding to the report, the Law Society’s head of justice Richard Miller said government “must guard against the increased use of remote hearings becoming a barrier to access for justice for more vulnerable people who may not have the required technology or ability to use it, as well as ensuring that the media – as the eyes and ears of the public – has access to such hearings”.

He added: “There would need to be clear evidence of how juries sitting remotely will help to increase capacity to clear the backlogs before such a change is considered.”

Miller also echoed previous concerns around the absence of clear data in areas such as the impact of the HMCTS court reform programme, remote hearings and Nightingale courts on justice outcomes.

“Clarity over the timetable for implementing [the] reform programme would be welcome,” added Miller.