The courts “could cope” with a large volume of criminal appeals in the wake of the Post Office scandal, the Lady Chief Justice told MPs yesterday.
Baroness Carr said it was also “absolutely not true” that the judiciary had “given the green light” to the government’s proposed legislation to overturn the Post Office convictions.
In her first appearance in the role before the justice select committee, Baroness Carr said every miscarriage of justice was “deeply troubling”, and she shared with the judiciary concern about the convictions, based on the flawed Horizon computer system.
“It isn’t news for the judiciary, because of course the High Court judgment in 2019, after two years of robust and fearless case management, delivered the judgment that forms the foundation of the ability to overturn these convictions.
“The first appeals and references came into the criminal courts in the summer of 2020, and since then both at the Court of Appeal and at the Crown Court level, the courts have done nothing but progress those cases efficiently and robustly.”
She went on: “In so far as there is a narrative out there which suggests that the courts have been unable to cope with these cases or would in the future be unable to deal with large volumes of these cases, that is simply very far off the mark. It is simply not factually correct.”
Baroness Carr said it had never been for the judiciary to comment on proposed legislation.
“That is well established and it is something that the judiciary has never done, nor have I done. In so far as I have had discussions with the Lord Chancellor [Alex Chalk], I have not expressed any view on the proposed legislation.”
The LCJ said she had held “two short conversations” last Monday with the Lord Chancellor remotely, which was “the extent of the consultation”.
She wanted to make it “absolutely clear that any suggestion that the judiciary has given the proposed legislation the green light is absolutely not true”.
Asked by committee chair Sir Bob Neill about newspaper headlines stating that the prime minister would fast-track appeals against deportation decisions to Rwanda by drafting in 150 judges and freeing up courtrooms, Baroness Carr said the coverage “had drawn matters of judicial responsibility into the political arena”.
She went on: “Parliament has legislated. We the judiciary have acted in preparation for that legislation. To be absolutely clear, matters of deployment of judges, the allocation of work for judges and the use of courtrooms is exclusively a matter for the judiciary – more specifically a matter for myself and the senior president of tribunals.
“It is really important that people understand that clear division.”
Later in the session, Baroness Carr said she had set up a transparency committee, to be chaired by a specialist judge, whose main focus would be on improving access to justice. The members have not yet been chosen.
It would deal not just with broadcasting from the courts but giving access to documents and information to people, including journalists, and encourage “high-quality reporting across the board”.
She said one of the reasons broadcasting from the courts had worked so well was because it was handled “so carefully and cautiously” from the start and she “would not want to change that approach”.
Baroness Carr said it was possible that in the future a “media judge” could be appointed, as in Finland, to explain how things worked completely independently of any particular case.
On the Crown Court backlog, she said “frontloading” cases as much as possible, with as much disclosure as possible, was crucial.
However, while “the tools that judges have at their disposal” could improve the situation, they would not bring about “real change” without “radical reforms”, such as the recalibration of offences, reduction in the number of either-way offences and possible use of “intermediate courts”.
On diversity, she said her two priorities for this year were understanding why there were not more Black judges and looking at the provision made for district judges.
She added that the judiciary was “really beginning to make progress” in the appointment of solicitor judges, “particularly at the senior level”.