Profession disappointed with slim Budget pickings

Budget box and Red Book: Not much in there for the justice system

The legal profession yesterday expressed disappointment at the lack of attention given to the justice system in the Spring Budget, which will see the Ministry of Justice’s expenditure fall next year by half a billion pounds.

Taking with one hand and giving with the other, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt also announced £170m of investment in justice.

The Treasury Red Book, detailing all of the Budget proposals, said that while the Ministry of Justice’s current budget for 2023-24 was £10.5bn, it would fall 4.8% to £10bn in the coming year – albeit this was still more than the £9.3bn spent in 2022-23.

The department’s capital budget will increase, however, from £1.5bn to £1.8bn.

Mr Hunt’s only reference to justice in his speech was that “too many legal cases, particularly in family law, should never go to court and it would cost us less if they didn’t. So we will spend £170m to fund non-court resolution, reduce reoffending and digitise the court process”.

Of this, the Red Book revealed, £55m is for the family courts “to offer online targeted guidance and earlier legal advice, shortening wait times and supporting families through non-court dispute resolution”.

This appears to be supporting policies announced in January for the earlier resolution of private family law matters; the Red Book mentioned the plan they contained for a new online information and guidance tool to support earlier resolution of family disputes.

“The tool will help families navigate the range of options available by suggesting suitable interventions based on need and provide early legal advice,” it said.

There will be an extra £12m to expand the scope of legal aid to encompass early legal advice in private family law proceedings for parties considering an application to the court for child arrangements.

The Ministry of Justice will also work to improve “the experiences of the courts for victims and survivors of domestic abuse through the private law pathfinder pilot”. This will identify needs earlier and provide specialist support to victims and survivors of domestic abuse.

The rest of the money is divided £100m for prisons to support rehabilitative activities and reducing reoffending, and £15m “to introduce digital solutions, reducing administrative burdens in the courts”.

The Red Book lists three specific projects relating to the latter:

  • Modernising communications from HM Courts & Tribunal Service by bringing forward digital reforms and reducing spend on first class post
  • Using artificial intelligence to reduce the need for manual scanning of paper documents through the introduction of intelligent document processing technology in the administration of court cases; and
  • Providing the Crown Prosecution Service with £10m additional funding for digitising jury bundles in the criminal courts, reducing paper wastage and unnecessary trial delays. “This will save up to 55,000 hours a year in court preparation time to enable reducing the length of trials”.

Whilst welcoming what was pledged, Law Society president Nick Emmerson said the new funding was “nowhere near enough”, especially the absence of any new money for criminal legal aid.

“This was a chance for the government to give the justice system the investment it so desperately needs. Too frequently it is said that justice is not a priority for this government, but we would hope recent events will call for reflection on how it supports our courts systems.”

Sam Townend KC, chair of the Bar Council, agreed that the money was welcome but “a drop in the ocean in terms of what the justice sector really needs to get back to working order after years of underinvestment”.

He continued: “Court buildings are crumbling, solicitors and barristers are burned out, and victims and defendants are left in the backlogs. Justice delays lead to injustice.

“On the day that the Senior Presiding Judge rightly announced a push to hear the 181 rape cases that have been delayed for over two years, it is vital that the system is properly funded so that public confidence in justice can be restored.”

Michelle Heeley KC, a criminal barrister at No5 Chambers and leader of the Midlands Circuit, said she had hoped to see a commitment to an independent pay review body for criminal law specialists.

“The underinvestment in court buildings over the previous decades has led to some of our courts being unfit for purpose, which has exacerbated issues with the backlog. We note there is no mention of funds to repair and maintain such buildings, and urge the government to consider directing funds to this much neglected area.”

Ms Heeley acknowledged an increase in judicial recruitment in recent months, but said that, without ensuring sufficient criminal and family law barristers remained working at legally aided rates, the backlog of cases “will remain stubbornly high”.

Tom Franklin, chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association, described the Budget as a missed opportunity.

“While the extra money announced… is welcome, all parts of the justice system, from the provision of court legal advisers and probation officers, to the dire state of our court buildings, need considerable new investment if justice is to be served fairly and efficiently.

“And plans to boost the efficiency of the police may well result in higher arrest rates, drawing more people into our already overburdened criminal justice system without the resources needed to deal with them speedily…

“Today’s news means that unfortunately, speedier justice for all – victims, witnesses and defendants – will be further delayed. Without properly investing in justice, a bad situation is going to get worse.”

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