Brandon Lewis is Justice Secretary and MP for Great Yarmouth.
Justice delayed means justice denied, as the legal maxim goes. Yet that’s the harsh reality for too many victims across the country today.
The coronavirus pandemic had a devastating impact, driving up the backlog of cases. In 2019, these had been at their lowest level for almost 20 years. The recent strikes over barristers’ pay have exacerbated those delays, leaving victims waiting even longer for justice. Their lives are essentially being put on hold.
Like me, the Prime Minister is determined to get the justice system moving again. As a Government, we’re clear that everyone deserves swift access to justice, no matter who they are or where they are.
When I was appointed as Justice Secretary, I met with leaders of the Bar Council and Criminal Bar Association as soon as practically possible – to start talking about how we could end the revolving door of strike action.
I’m pleased this week that a majority of criminal barristers voted to end strike action on the basis of a new package we put forward, meaning barristers are now back at work. Now we will all need to work together to get on top of the backlogs and unclog our courts, ensuring victims get the justice they deserve.
These proposals will get the wheels of justice moving again for the benefit of all – including victims of some of the most horrific crimes like rape and sexual violence. We’re serious about doing better for victims, so that more cases come to court and more criminals are put behind bars.
Our package for barristers already includes a generous 15 percent pay rise for new cases. That means around £7000 a year extra for the typical criminal barrister. We’ve now agreed to an increase for the vast majority of cases where work had already begun.
I’m clear that further strike action must be avoided, so that this situation cannot arise again. That’s why I am creating a new Criminal Legal Aid Advisory Board – as recommended in the Bellamy review – that will make sure legal aid schemes keep pace with the reality of criminal justice today. My hope is that we can break the damaging cycle that has beset relations between criminal barristers and the Government for over a decade. We’re wasting no time setting up the Board and I’m pleased to say that it will meet for the first time later this month.
Over the next three years, we are investing an extra £477 million into criminal justice system recovery and have removed the cap on court sitting days for two years in a row to help us to get through as many cases as possible.
Temporary Nightingale Courts have increased court capacity, and we’ve rolled out video technology to the vast majority of courts so more hearings can take place remotely.
Our new ‘super courtrooms’ in Manchester and Loughborough are able to hear up to 250 extra cases a year, while tougher sentencing powers for magistrates have freed up around 1,700 sitting days of Crown Court time – meaning more cases can get through the system more quickly.
And by raising the mandatory retirement for judges from 70 to 75, we’ve been able to retain more judges and magistrates to make sure we have capacity to hear enough cases this year and beyond.
Through our targeted efforts, the outstanding caseload in the Crown Court had reduced from 60,400 cases in June last year, to 57,900 at the end of March this year. But since April, the backlog has been increasing again, having built up during the Criminal Bar Association’s strike action, and was back at around 60,000 cases at the end of July.
Further action is therefore needed to ensure we drive the backlog down once again. We have done it before, and we will do it again.
I want to thank the Criminal Bar for engaging with us and I’m pleased that its leaders have agreed to support us in our efforts to drive down court backlogs, resolve cases sooner, and work with the judiciary and Crown Prosecution Service to make better use of court time.
It’s time for a fresh start. For a more open, constructive relationship between Government and our criminal legal profession.
After all, we share the same aim – putting the criminal justice system on a more sustainable footing for the future. That’s a win for victims, and indeed everyone who relies on our justice system.