England: MPs call on government to tackle endemic capacity issues in courts
Westminster’s justice committee has called on the UK government to do more to tackle the lengthy backlog facing the court system in England and Wales.
In a report published today, the committee warns that while innovations in the court system are welcome it will require strategic planning and long-term resourcing to address the number of cases waiting to be heard.
At present, staffing levels, particularly the number of judges, and the physical courts estate are insufficient to support the level of capacity necessary to cope with the demands placed on the court system.
Courts are frequently unavailable as they have not been maintained to a sufficient standard. The committee said the government must improve planning for maintaining the estate and implement a programme of works that secures its long-term use while maintaining capacity. Recruitment and retainment of staff will also need to improve with better identification of areas where shortages are acute.
It also said that the inspection regime for the courts system should also be strengthened so that it can scrutinise progress in improving court administration and improve best practice. The committee is particularly concerned that the civil, family and coroner courts do not currently have an inspector. Accordingly, the committee has recommended that the government re-establish a Courts’ Inspectorate with updated and broadened terms of reference.
The collection of data is also not currently sufficient to identify where there are problems and to inform decision-making. The government should build on current plans to implement scorecards and ensure that it invests in improving the quality of the data it collects.
Publishing the report, chair of the justice committee, Sir Bob Neill, said: “In response to the huge backlog facing courts an impressive commitment to innovation has emerged. The speed with which Nightingale Courts have been established, the use of digital technology and attempts to boost mediation instead of going to family court are all welcome. However, this alone will not have the necessary impact to tackle the scale of the capacity issues facing courts.
“The government must work with the Judiciary to ensure that there is sufficient staff and court space to allow trials to take place and the lengthy backlog to reduce. The physical estate has been left to crumble for too long and must be made fit for purpose. There must be sufficient numbers of judicial and clerical staff to cope with the volume of cases.
“Understanding of the demand on courts needs to improve so that long-term planning can be based on an accurate picture of likely demand. Data should be collected of sufficient quality to allow long-term trends to be understood. There also needs to be better oversight of performance with key parts of the justice system currently without any inspection regime in place.
“The court system is creaking and there needs to be coherent, consistent planning to fix it.”