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Justice system in need of clear Government vision and increased funding to recover from pandemic, says Lords Committee

Tuesday 30 April 2021

Following an inquiry into the constitutional implications of COVID-19, the House of Lords Constitution Committee today publishes the first of three reports on this subject: the impact of COVID-19 on courts.

According to the committee, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on courts and tribunals in England and Wales. Case backlogs reached record levels, which leads to significant delays to justice. The rapid adoption of remote hearings risks excluding vulnerable and non-professional court users. Limited data collection and publication across the courts system undermines transparency and makes it harder to diagnose deficiencies and improve access to justice. All of this, say the committee, threatens to undermine access to justice and public confidence in the justice system.

The report covers and makes recommendations on the following areas:

Impact of remote hearings and issues raised by backlog

The backlog of cases, which predated the pandemic, has now reached record levels. In the criminal courts, this leads to lengthy waits for justice and a growing remand population. The number of outstanding employment and family cases has also grown significantly since the start of the pandemic, which further undermines access to justice and public faith in the justice system.

The committee recommends that the government set clear targets to reduce the backlog and publishes a timeline to meet those targets. The Committee also recommends that the government funds HMCTS to increase Nightingale courtrooms and sitting days.

Data in the courts system

There are real concerns that remote hearings disadvantage vulnerable and non-professional court users, as well as those with protected characteristics. However, the requisite data to assess and address these concerns are not available.

The committee recommends that the government makes clear commitments to data reform across the courts service, to prioritise data collation to identify the effects of remote hearings on non-professional and vulnerable court users.

Role of technology in future of the justice system

The measures put in place to tackle the spread of COVID-19 have significant changed to the operation of courts and tribunals across England and Wales. The uptake of various technologies across the justice system, especially video, accelerated at unprecedented speed.

The committee concludes that virtual proceedings were, and continue to be, necessary to maintain the operation of the justice system during the pandemic. However, the practical challenges of remote hearings risk undermining or excluding participants and damaging access to justice. More research is needed to mitigate adverse effects of online proceedings and restore faith in the justice system. 

Baroness Taylor, Chair of the Constitution Committee said:

“There has been a monumental effort by all working in courts and tribunals to maintain a functioning justice system in recent months. We applaud the hard work of all those who have supported court users in these very difficult circumstances.

“However, recognition of the significant achievements in responding to the pandemic should not obscure the scale of the challenges that the courts continue to face.

“The courts system was not well prepared for disruption on the scale caused by the pandemic. Courts funding had fallen significantly in real terms over the preceding decade and a programme to modernise court technology was struggling to deliver the improvements needed.

“There is much work to be done to address the constitutional consequences of the pandemic for the courts. The Government needs to renew its vision and increase the funding to achieve it. For justice to be done, and be seen to be done, considerable new effort and investment is required.”

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