Cuts have left court system ‘close to breaking point’ and have put its
credibility at risk, MPs warn
Thursday 26 May 2016
finds that a shortage of judges is contributing to two-thirds of trials in the
Crown Court being delayed, or not going ahead at all
The court system in
England and Wales is “close to breaking point” and its credibility in the eyes
of the public is now at risk, MPs have warned in a damning assessment of the
impact of six years of Government cuts.
In some areas there are
simply not enough judges to hear all cases, and the number of Crown Prosecution
Service lawyers has also taken a hit, falling by quarter since March 2010, the
Public Accounts Committee said.
The MPs’ inquiry found
that shortages are contributing to two-thirds of trials in the Crown Court being
delayed, or not going ahead at all. As of last September, there was a backlog of
51,830 cases. Delays and inefficiency were having a serious impact on victims of
crime and witnesses in trials, MPs said, with the average wait between a
Magistrates Court trial and a Crown Court trial extending from 99 days two years
ago, to 134 days today.
Nearly half of people who
had been witnesses in trials said they would not be prepared to do so again
following their experience of the court system.
Government spending on the criminal courts system has fallen by 26 per cent
since 2010-11. A range of controversial hikes in court fees for individuals have
been introduced to help make up the shortfall, but the PAC said that ministers
had now “exhausted the scope” for cuts.
Many of the problems identified in the report date back to the tenure of Chris
Grayling as Justice Secretary (EPA)
Many of the problems
identified in the report date back to the tenure of Chris Grayling as Justice
Secretary in the Coalition Government. MPs noted that Michael Gove, who took on
the role last year, had set about a process of reform, but warned that the
situation was so drastic that urgent changes may be needed to lighten caseloads.
The report concluded the system was “close to breaking point”.
Meg Hillier, the Labour
chairwoman of the PAC, said that two successive governments had given “too
little thought to the consequences of cutbacks”.
“An effective criminal
justice system is a cornerstone of civil society but ours is at risk,” she said.
“The system’s ability to deliver justice, together with its credibility in the
eyes of the public, is under threat…The Government has dragged its heels in
addressing these problems. The Ministry is now seeking to reform the system but
there is more action it can take immediately to benefit struggling regions, and
MPs encountered a
“postcode lottery” in access for justice, with big disparities in the length of
time victims had to wait between a crime being committed and a Crown Court trial
being concluded. In Durham, for example, the wait was 243 days, but extended to
418 days in Sussex.
Ms Hiller said the system
had become “overstretched and disjointed”.
A Ministry of Justice
spokesperson said: “The Justice Secretary has been clear that our criminal
justice system needs urgent reform. That is why we have embarked on
comprehensive measures to improve our prisons and courts, backed by more than
£2bn of investment, to build a swifter, more certain justice system.
“Our plans will bring
modern technology into our courts to better meet the needs of everyone who uses
our services, and will replace ageing and ineffective prisons with new buildings
designed to support rehabilitation. We welcome this report and will reflect on
Law Society Chief
Executive Catherine Dixon said: “The viability of criminal legal aid services
across England and Wales is under serious threat. This report confirms the grave
concerns that we have expressed about the criminal justice system. Criminal
justice is at the heart of a democratic society and underpins the rule of law.
We are concerned that miscarriages of justice can occur in a system which is
clearly not working as it should.
“We hope this report will
prompt the government to take action to ensure that anyone accused of wrongdoing
has access to justice.”