The Lord Chief Justice yesterday made a direct plea to the Lord Chancellor for more investment in the courts system.
In a virtual address to the annual Mansion House judges dinner, Lord Burnett said the system had “done well” to limit the growth in outstanding cases during the pandemic, but could not reduce levels “as fast as we would like”.
He said: “Years of budgetary squeezes have reduced the resilience and flexibility of the courts and tribunals, limiting capacity. We do not currently have enough judges or staff and lack both the quantity and quality of buildings and technology necessary.
“I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for having secured additional funding for the changes needed to enable our buildings to continue to operate and urgently to provide additional technology and staff to support it.
“That, however, is just the beginning. If we value justice, sufficient funding must be provided, not just as a temporary stopgap, but on a sustained basis. It was encouraging to hear the Prime Minister restate in Parliament only a fortnight ago his support for further funding.”
Lord Burnett said it was “fortunate” that the modernisation programme was underway when the pandemic struck “but with full digitisation, better equipment and a bespoke video conferencing facility we could have done much more”.
It would be, he stressed, “unforgivable” if the courts were not better equipped were another crisis to strike. “The modernisation programme, underway now for more than four years, is vital to the long-term health of the administration of justice.”
The Lord Chief Justice emphasised too the importance of the early resolution of disputes before they reached the courts, if possible.
The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, also addressed the dinner and pointed out that he had invested in extra staff, improved technology, and provided additional Nightingale courtrooms over the past year.
“But we recognise that there remains more to do. As you know, the Lord Chief Justice and I have lifted the cap on sitting days for this financial year and as restrictions ease we will ramp up capacity – to enable you to hear as many cases as possible, so that waiting times can come down and justice can be delivered more quickly.
“And I’d like to offer the strongest reassurance that both he and I remain committed to making the big decisions to recover the whole system from the effects of Covid-19 and to ensure that we learn lessons from the pandemic to improve justice for the future.”
Lord Burnett said the delays caused by Covid have “exposed the implications if the justice system is not working smoothly and quickly. There are costs in human and financial terms to individuals, to businesses and to society if cases take too long to resolve”.
He continued: “As a country, we must not lose sight of what this tells us about the value that should be attached to the courts and tribunals. They are much more than a public service available to those who find themselves using them. They form one of the bedrocks of a free society governed by the rule of law.”