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Why we must turn our attention to the justice emergency

With the end of lockdown on the horizon, the Chair of the Bar Council, Derek Sweeting QC, says we must turn our attention to the justice emergency | Credit: Alamy

Bar Council

5 min read Partner content

As the country emerges from a year of lockdowns, the criminal justice system is feeling the strain. We met up with Derek Sweeting QC, Chair of the Bar Council, to find out more about how COVID has impacted on the criminal justice system, and to discuss how justice can build back better.

Derek Sweeting QC has chaired the Bar Council through some of the period of the biggest public health emergency in living memory, a pandemic which has turned the previously existing backlog in Crown Court cases into a full-blown justice crisis.

As Sweeting talks The House through the crisis in numbers, it is clear that the impact COVID has had on the justice system is far-reaching and profound. Just as the pandemic shut down shops, cafes, and schools, it also closed courts and delayed trials. He explains how the record backlog of cases that existed prior to the pandemic, has now grown to unignorable proportions.

Sweeting acknowledges that the criminal justice system has often “flown below the radar” when it comes to political traction. However, he also believes that the sheer scale of the current backlog is something that is starting to cut through with the public. “We are going to get to a point where the health emergency ends,” he explains, “but that won’t be the end of the emergency in the justice sector. It won’t make sense to talk about backlogs in health and education without also talking about backlogs in justice”.

What comes across most in our conversation is that this is a real problem with real impacts on the everyday lives of people up and down the country. It is easy for outsiders to see a court backlog simply as an administration problem, but where Sweeting becomes most animated and passionate is in describing the actual impact of the delays to cases on victims and witnesses.

He reminds us that, behind every one of the 52,000 delayed cases, there are real people with their lives on hold, often waiting years for a case to come to trial. He talks about the “sheer fatigue” caused by long delays and the impact that this has on the wellbeing and mental health of victims.

Sweeting is also convinced that this is not a crisis that will disappear with vaccinations and a return to normality. Indeed, he expects the government drive for 20,000 new police officers and 10,000 new prison places to lead to an increase in arrests, piling yet more pressure on a system that is already struggling to keep pace. Sweeting describes such initiatives as “widening the funnel”, but adds that “we haven’t seen any increase in the size of the funnel where it is narrowest”.

It is impossible to argue with the logic of his position. Without proper resourcing to widen that gateway, there will be a continuing backlog, more delays to justice, and no resolution for victims of crime.

There is actually a real positive about delivering justice swiftly because that encourages people to have confidence in the system

There is also a concern that this bottleneck may end up being presented by politicians as symptomatic of a system that is blocking, not facilitating, justice. “That drum is banged all the time,” he says. “That it's the courts and the lawyers that stand in the way of dealing with people effectively.”

Does he believe that such political attacks undermine public confidence in the justice system? Sweeting pauses, picking his words as carefully as one would expect of an experienced barrister.

“The activist lawyers’ badge has been applied by politicians in public speeches and on government media accounts. I think politicians have to be very careful about the idea that somehow their efforts are being frustrated by the lawyers”.

He does acknowledge however, that more could be done to build public confidence in other areas, particularly with those communities that may feel that the justice system has historically worked against, not for, them. “I think a lot of people will look at the legal system and say, ‘it's all stacked against me if I come from a certain background.’” He believes that significant progress is already being made on issues such as race and gender, but he is equally clear that work remains to be done. “There is no doubt that we need to make all of our institutions – politics, justice, the armed forces, and so on, look a lot more like the 21st century UK.”

However, for Sweeting, the issue that will potentially erode public confidence the most is the continuing delays to justice caused by the backlog of cases. “There is actually a real positive about delivering justice swiftly because that encourages people to have confidence in the system,” he explains. “Swift justice and a functioning criminal justice system are a central part of social cohesion.”

Time and again in our discussion what comes to the fore is that, for all of the wigs and gowns, this is a profession very much in touch with the deepest problems of contemporary society.

Sweeting agrees: “The idea you can silo the justice system and take it out of its social setting is a big mistake. These things are worth investing in because in the end they save taxpayer money, and it is just better. We end up living in a better society.”

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