The government has been warned of the importance of the “rule of law” by the most senior judge in England and Wales, in a call to increase funding for the criminal justice system.
The Lord Chief Justice said ministers caused backlogs to start growing before the coronavirus pandemic by restricting the number of days when courts can operate.
In his annual report, published on Friday, Lord Burnett of Maldon warned that the only way to cut record waiting times was to run crown courts at full capacity for the “foreseeable future”.
“Adequate resourcing of the courts and tribunals is vital for the future,” he wrote.
“There has been too little focus on the value that the rule of law, a properly functioning justice system and the courts contribute to the general prosperity of the nation.”
“Future funding should take into account the vital part that the courts play in sustaining the rule of law,” he added.
“Courts are one of the foundations of the rule of law and one of the building blocks on which civil society and economic activity rests.”
The Ministry of Justice’s latest figures showed a record of almost 61,000 cases waiting to be heard in crown courts, and 364,000 cases in magistrates' courts across England and Wales.
A fifth of all trials have been “outstanding” for a year or more, and average crown court waiting times have rocketed to 230 days.
A National Audit Office (NAO) report published last month found that although the government was working to reduce record numbers of outstanding cases, there are not enough judges to clear the backlog and plans are being put at risk by “long-term funding uncertainty”.
It warned that rape and sexual assault cases had been particularly affected by delays, which increase the risk of victims withdrawing from prosecutions and causing them to collapse.
The Lord Chief Justice said that reducing the backlog was the “overriding task” for everyone in the criminal justice system.
“The outstanding caseload was growing before Covid-19 as a result of restrictions on sitting days imposed by the government,” he added.
“In order to make any inroads into the backlog we must continue to sit to full capacity in the crown courts for the foreseeable future and increase that capacity wherever it is possible to do so.
“Full capacity means using all available physical space, every judicial resource and ensuring that there are sufficient court staff on site and legal professionals available to prosecute and defend cases, with no cap on crown court sitting days.”
The NAO report said the Ministry of Justice allocated 16 per cent fewer sitting days in 2019-20 than in 2018-19 because it expected the number of cases entering the court system to continue to fall, but the allocation proved insufficient to meet demand.
The number of cases entering courts is expected to increase further as a result of the recruitment of 20,000 extra police officers, intensifying the pressure.
The Ministry of Justice now forecasts that the crown court backlog will be between 17 and 27 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels by November 2024, and there is “considerable uncertainty” about changes in crime trends and the effects of police recruitment.
The government removed sitting day restrictions in 2021-21 and launched a courts recovery programme that increased crown court capacity by 30 per cent between September 2020 and July.
Lord Burnett warned that capacity depends “not only on court space, but also the availability of judges”.
He said many were working in “poor physical conditions” and that there had been a real-terms fall in remuneration since 2008, adding: “It is an unfortunate fact that in discharging their judicial responsibilities, judicial office holders have, on occasion, been subjected to harassment by members of the public on social media.”
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