Bob Neill MP: It isn’t rocket science, we must urgently adjust our priorities to ensure our courts receive proper investment
Our courts system helps to protect our fundamental rights, we have a duty to ensure it is properly resourced and the people working in it are better supported, writes Sir Bob Neill.
There’s a lot of truth in the old saying that justice delayed is justice denied.
Indeed, almost all of us would agree that a proper, well-managed justice system must be funded to a level that enables cases to be disposed of in a swift and efficient manner. That is not only fundamental to the rule of law but also, quite patently, to the victims of crime, who deserve to see that justice is done, not least so that they can begin to move on with their lives. On a purely practical note, the witnesses’ recollection of crime will normally be better and more accurate if a case is brought to court whilst its focus is still fresh in their minds.
And yet, as anyone involved in the legal system will tell you, cases are currently facing delays of many months, and far too often, multiple years. In fact, go into any court today and you will find a large number of the cases listed will be in relation to allegations made in 2018. That cannot be right.
This reality is made even more concerning given the number of prosecutions and penalties for crime has fallen to an all-time low – just 1.59 million in 2019, 29% less than ten years ago. So why is the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) still managing a backlog of more than 30,000 crown court cases (up 3% year-on-year) and 288,000 magistrate cases?
The answer is as simple as it is common: cash, or a lack thereof.
The MoJ has seen its overall budget slashed by 40% since 2010, among the deepest cut of any Whitehall department. This has had a significant impact in a raft of areas, most notably in the genuine crisis that has emerged across our prison estate, the closure of 162 magistrates’ courts and 90 county courts, as well as in the reduction in provision of legal aid in the criminal, civil and family spheres. Not as well documented, but no less important, is the shocking underuse of those court facilities that remain.
Across London last Thursday, on the first working day of the New Year, only 20 of 104 courts were sitting.
With prosecutors bringing fewer cases to trial, this snapshot is indicative of a much broader picture in which, on any given day, between 25% and 40% of our courts sit empty. In no other frontline public service would such inefficiency be tolerated.
It stems from the arbitrary measures taken by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) as part of a wider cost-cutting exercise which has seen the number of court sitting days fall by 15%, from 97,400 in 2018/19 to 82,300 in 2019/20.
The situation has now deteriorated to the extent that many recorders – part-time, fee-paid judges – are not being asked to sit even the minimum number of days they are contractually required to. Given the considerable backlog outlined above, this points to a grave failure of proper management on the part of HMCTS.
Our courts system helps to protect our fundamental rights, provides us with a means of seeking redress when the law is broken, and resolves disputes between individuals and businesses. These are all measures of a civilised society.
It is for those reasons the justice system is as fundamental a part of our social services as health, education and social care, employing, directly or indirectly, some immensely dedicated, talented and brave people. It needs to be properly resourced and the people working in it better supported.
The cost of righting this wrong is minimal in the grand scheme of expenditure (in fact, the Ministry of Justice’s budget currently accounts for a mere 1% of Government spending), but the benefits of change would be widely felt across society, particularly by some of the most vulnerable members of our communities.
This isn’t rocket science, nor does it require us to reinvent the wheel. What is urgently needed is an adjustment of priorities and a rethink on how we best use the assets and resources we already have.
Sir Bob Neill is a Conservative Member of Parliament for Bromley and Chislehurst, and Chair of the Justice Select Committee.