10:54, February 28 126 0 theguardian.com

2020-02-28 10:54:04
Crown courts 'should sit more to end delays to justice'

Crown courts should sit more often to deal with a backlog in cases, the head of the judiciary in England and Wales has urged, as the government launched a consultation in response to demands for improved legal aid fees for lawyers.

The lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, lamented that delays to justice had been allowed to grow and criticised the state of many court buildings. The courts service last year underestimated the number of days required to hear the volume of criminal cases, Burnett added.

Speaking on Friday at his annual press conference in the Royal Courts of Justice, Burnett also called for a period “calm reflection” over Boris Johnson’s proposals for a constitutional commission to examine the role of judicial review challenges and whether judges were trespassing on political territory.

Judges would make official representations to any commission, Burnett said, and reflect basic principles that include “the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary”. Parliament was entitled to look at these issues, he said. “I don’t think it’s something people should get hysterical about.”

No one would wish to live in a society where the government was never challenged over its actions “but there are perfectly legitimate arguments and discussions about where the boundaries of [such judicial review claims] should be,” he added.

On the question of resources for the justice system, Burnett repeated his criticism over failures to repair court buildings, which he said had suffered “degradations over many years”.

He welcomed what he believed the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was about to deliver – at least 4,700 extra sitting days for crown courts in the next financial year. “Large number of cases involving defendants who are not in custody are being listed further into the future,” he said. He denied, however, that the problems amounted to a crisis in the criminal justice system.

Separately on Friday, the MoJ announced it could deliver an increase of between £32m and £50m in legal aid fees through a consultation it is launching on payments to criminal defence lawyers.

Announcing the review, the lord chancellor, Robert Buckland, said: “These proposals are an important first step towards reviewing sustainability in the long term, ensuring fair fees, and delivering value for the taxpayer. I am grateful for the engagement of defence practitioners to get us this far, and I look forward to working with them as we progress.”

The extra money may include payments for lawyers for reviewing unused material in cases, additional payments for barristers with high volumes of pages of prosecution evidence, increased payments for barristers in trials where cases collapse, and additional payments for work done on sending cases to the crown court.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said the proposals were inadequate. Its president, Simon Davis, said: “We have warned time and again that the very existence of criminal defence practitioners is under threat. Unless the package is adjusted to address the depth and urgency of this crisis, then extinction may be firmly on the horizon.

“There are increasingly large areas of the country where there are no defence solicitors available. The very notion of British justice is in jeopardy – with victims left in limbo and the accused potentially deprived of a fair trial.



“Not only will the shortage of practitioners lead to injustice; it is economically unsound. Defence lawyers help ensure the justice system runs efficiently – and in doing so, save the taxpayer money.”

Caroline Goodwin QC, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “We are however acutely aware of the crisis within our sister profession, namely solicitors, with whom we share a symbiotic relationship and without whom the criminal justice system simply could not function. We share their concerns.”

Amanda Pinto QC, the chair of the Bar Council, said: “These consultation proposals set out a modest, stop-gap improvement in specific areas of criminal defence fees. This is a welcome first step, as the lord chancellor acknowledges, in recognising the crucial role of defence legal practitioners to the delivery of justice in an increasingly complex and onerous system.

“All those involved in delivering criminal justice must be paid a fair and sustainable amount for the important work they do. We believe this interim consultation is an acknowledgement by the government that the current rates of pay for defence advocates and solicitors are far too low to maintain a functioning criminal justice system.”

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