12:16, April 25 265 0 theguardian.com

2018-04-25 12:16:30
Judicial shortages pose threat to court system, top judge warns

The effective operation of the courts in England and Wales is under threat due to problems of judicial recruitment, increasingly heavy workloads and deteriorating working conditions, according to the lord chief justice.

In his first appearance before the Lords constitution select committee in his new post on Wednesday, Lord Burnett of Maldon also highlighted the growing problem of death threats being made against judges on social media and the need to provide protection.

And he agreed that the shortage of criminal defence solicitors, as highlighted by a recent Law Society survey, was in danger of becoming a “crisis” in the justice system.

“The current difficulties with judicial recruitment pose a threat to the discharge of the business of the courts effectively,” the most senior judge in England and Wales told peers. “This affects the ordinary work of the civil, family and criminal courts.

“Additionally, problems of recruitment to the higher courts threaten to undermine the worldwide reputation of the judiciary of England and Wales and reduce the attraction of London as the pre-eminent centre for international dispute resolution. The voluntary use of our courts by those outside this jurisdiction is worth billions a year.”

Burnett’s concerns reinforce comments made by another senior judge, Lady Justice Hallett, when she warned that the English justice system’s international reputation as the best in the world was “hanging on by its fingernails”.

Low judicial morale, Burnett said, was partially due to reductions in pensions and adverse tax changes but also the state of the courts, which had been allowed to decay and were “frankly an embarrassment”. Repairs could eventually cost hundreds of millions of pounds, he suggested.

Abuse and vitriol on social media is also making the profession more difficult for judges, who find themselves targeted because they sit in sensitive cases, he said, particularly in the family division.

“It’s dispiriting and sometimes genuinely frightening for some of our judges and it’s not right that any of them should be put in fear for themselves or their families.” Some cases involved death threats, he later confirmed.

“It is capable of undermining the rule of law because it erodes confidence [in the courts]. We have put in place various mechanisms to provide protection and support for judges who find themselves in such a position.”

Burnett declined to comment on industrial action by the Criminal Bar Association over the level of their legal fees, but said funding and pay may be a cause of the decline in the number of defence solicitors. Young solicitors and barristers were put off from joining the criminal branch of the profession because of poor financial rewards, he added.

“I had not appreciated until I read the Law Society report recently quite how desperate the position appears to be in many parts of the country. If that gets worse, if one simply can’t get duty solicitors to turn out to police stations, then that’s a problem that has got to be resolved.”

He said many judges were retiring early, adding to the recruitment problems. The high court is short of 14 judges and the latest recruitment round is not expected to fill the spaces.

Failures of disclosure in high-profile cases reflect the massive volume of digital material now associated with many trials. Both prosecutors and defence lawyers simply had too much to do, Burnett suggested.

Earlier on Wednesday, Sir James Munby, the president of high court’s family division, told a Westminster Legal Policy Forum conference that the number of care cases coming into the courts meant the system “is at breaking point and cannot cope with any more increases”.

In a separate development, the justice secretary, David Gauke, announced additional support and funding to improve diversity on the bench.

An online learning platform will enable candidates from all legal backgrounds to develop their understanding of the role and skills required of a judge, and how their legal experience has prepared them for judicial office, before making an application.

Gauke said: “We want to make it easier for people from all backgrounds to aspire to these roles. We have seen improvement in diversity in recent years, and it is clear that widening the talent pool from which judges are drawn can only make our world-renowned justice system even stronger.”

The extra funding from the Ministry of Justice will amount to £152,000 over three years.

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