Hundreds of crime lawyers have issued public refusals to attend hearings in evenings or at weekends as new figures show that backlogs in courts and tribunals were growing even before the coronavirus.
The open letter addressed to the Ministry of Justice, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and Lord Chief Justice has been signed by some 400 solicitors and barristers, including eight QCs, at the time of writing, who say that their “goodwill has run dry”.
It is a co-ordinated response to government and judicial plans to extend court opening hours as part of efforts to recover from the impact of coronavirus. The professional bodies, particularly at the Bar, have also been speaking out against the moves.
The letter said the backlog of cases in the criminal courts was due to “years of underfunding of our criminal justice system” rather than the pandemic.
“Not only has the government ignored our warnings, it has overseen the obliteration of our profession.
“It has been entirely unmoved by respected legal aid firms closing down, duty solicitors and criminal barristers leaving the profession in droves, and pupils and trainees earning less than the real living wage.
“It has left the courts – our places of work – leaking, filthy and broken. Viciously low means thresholds for legal aid have forced defendants to represent themselves when their livelihoods, families, mental health and liberty are at stake.”
The letter said lawyers were now expected to attend hearings during evenings and weekends for no extra pay.
“We will not do it. Our goodwill has run dry. The undersigned will not attend a single court listing outside of regular court hours. Not under any circumstances.
“We want to clear the backlog, but in a way which builds towards a sustainable future for the criminal justice system, and which affords dignity to ourselves, our clients, and court staff.”
Meanwhile, HMCTS’s annual report, published this week, showed how the system was struggling even before Covid-19 hit, with its performance only improving on one of eight indicators – timeliness at the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber), where the average case took 32 weeks, down from 40 in 2018/19.
But timeliness worsened in handling: care or supervision applications in the family court (35 weeks, up from 33); disposing of section 8 private law applications in the family court (31 weeks, up from 28); social security and child support cases (31 weeks, up from 29); single-judge employment tribunal cases (35 weeks, up from 29); and civil small claims (40 weeks, up from 37).
In addition, there were 325,903 magistrates’ court cases outstanding, a rise of 11%, and 40,173 Crown Court cases, a 21% jump on the previous year.