“A step in the right direction” – legal leaders seek positives from Budget

Sunak: 3.3% growth a year for rest of Parliament

Legal leaders hailed funding for the justice system announced in yesterday’s Budget as “a step in the right direction”, even though it will not even return the Crown Court backlog to pre-Covid levels.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak committed to increasing the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) budget by £2.2bn over the next four years to £11.5bn – in addition to the extra £1bn handed out in the government’s first two years – equivalent to a real-terms growth rate of 3.3% per year on average from now and 4.1% over the lifetime of the Parliament.

“This funding will ensure that the justice system is equipped to respond to the impact of Covid-19 and to rising demand over the next three years and will continue transformational reform programmes to make justice more efficient and effective,” the Treasury Red Book, which details the Budget, said.

The MoJ’s budget was £8.9bn in 2010-11 and fell to £7.5bn for 2015-16.

The extra money includes £477m to fund the criminal justice system’s recovery from Covid: “This funding will help to improve waiting times for victims of crime and start to reduce Crown Court backlogs caused by the pandemic from 60,000 today down to 53,000.”

More accurately, Covid has exacerbated, but not caused, the backlogs. The most recent MoJ figures say that, at the end of the second quarter of 2021, there were 60,692 outstanding cases at the Crown Court, an increase of 40% on the same quarter in 2020 (43,217 cases).

A further £324m will go to increase capacity in the civil, family and tribunal jurisdictions to continue tackling backlogs and improve timeliness, with “over £200m to complete the department’s flagship £1.3 billion court reform programme by 2024-25”.

The Treasury said the spending review would also provide “additional funding to increase the thresholds for means-tested legal aid, to expand access to justice to those who cannot afford it and increase the capacity of the civil legal aid sector”.

It continued: “As a result, more people could be eligible for legal aid at the magistrates’ court and for civil legal aid. [The MoJ] will also invest in the sustainability of the civil legal aid market, along with other potential changes to criminal legal aid.”

The Law Officers’ Departments settlement provides a £183m cash increase over the Parliament for the Crown Prosecution Service – which will receive £80m – Serious Fraud Office, HM Procurator General in Scotland and Treasury Solicitor, equivalent to a real-terms annual growth rate of 2.2%

The Red Book also said that while introducing the economic crime levy on lawyers and other businesses subject to the Money Laundering Regulations – raising £100m a year – the government itself will only provide new counter-fraud investment £18m in 2022-23 and £12m per year in 2023-24 and 2024-25.

Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce said it was “relieved” the MoJ’s budget would at least rise in line with inflation.

“It is good news the government has committed to better access to justice by investing more than £1bn to increase capacity and efficiency across the courts system, tackle the growing court backlogs and help the system recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

She also praised the move to “invest in the sustainability of the civil legal aid market”.

She continued: “The money announced today will not solve all the problems afflicting our justice system overnight, but it is a step in the right direction.

“We encourage the government to build on this by fully funding the recommendations of the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid, restoring legal aid for early legal advice and ending the legal aid deserts that now stretch across most of England and Wales.”

Bar Council chair Derek Sweeting QC said: “The announcement by the Chancellor today is a step in the right direction but there will still be a shortfall of funding to tackle the justice crisis, restore public confidence and reduce the backlogs in our courts and tribunals.”

Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, added: “The Budget is window dressing for the backlog crisis caused by years of sustained cuts to the criminal justice system. Without proper funding the government continues to fail victims, witnesses and defendants.”

Shadow Attorney General and former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer tweeted that the Budget was “terrible for the victims of crime”.

He said: “60,000 Crown Court Cases are currently caught in a backlog. The Chancellor has provided funding only to bring it down to 53,000 cases… Chancellor says ‘Our plan is working.’ Not in criminal justice.”

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