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Covid has undermined UK's chronically under-funded justice system Covid has undermined UK's chronically under-funded justice system
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Analysis: coronavirus has exacerbated the crisis facing courts but political consensus on the way forward remains elusiveAnalysis: coronavirus has exacerbated the crisis facing courts but political consensus on the way forward remains elusive
The pandemic has intensified the problems in England and Wales’ chronically under-funded justice system. Over the past decade the Ministry of Justice has suffered deeper cuts than any other Whitehall department – losing around 40% of its budget. The pandemic has intensified the problems in England and Wales’ chronically under-funded justice system. Over the past decade the Ministry of Justice has suffered deeper cuts than any other Whitehall department – losing more than a quarter of its budget.
Even the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has spoken out about the “dilapidated” state of the courts. Minor funding compensations followed.Even the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has spoken out about the “dilapidated” state of the courts. Minor funding compensations followed.
Covid, however, has chiselled open fresh cracks in the structure of the justice system. For the family courts and especially the criminal courts, where individuals need to be seen to deliver testimony, continuing work during lockdowns has been fraught.Covid, however, has chiselled open fresh cracks in the structure of the justice system. For the family courts and especially the criminal courts, where individuals need to be seen to deliver testimony, continuing work during lockdowns has been fraught.
By contrast, courts hosting only lawyer versus lawyer exchanges have adapted remarkably smoothly to remote video working.By contrast, courts hosting only lawyer versus lawyer exchanges have adapted remarkably smoothly to remote video working.
What exasperates many solicitors, barristers and judges in the criminal justice system is that hundreds of court buildings were sold off at a time when cuts to police and prosecutors may have temporarily depressed crime figures. Now in an emergency, Nightingale courts are being hastily hired to make good the shortfall for socially distanced hearings.What exasperates many solicitors, barristers and judges in the criminal justice system is that hundreds of court buildings were sold off at a time when cuts to police and prosecutors may have temporarily depressed crime figures. Now in an emergency, Nightingale courts are being hastily hired to make good the shortfall for socially distanced hearings.
Rather than tackling the backlog when crime rates fell, small-scale savings were made by the HM Courts and Tribunals Service restricting judges’ sittings days and causing a significant backlog to build up even before the pandemic struck.Rather than tackling the backlog when crime rates fell, small-scale savings were made by the HM Courts and Tribunals Service restricting judges’ sittings days and causing a significant backlog to build up even before the pandemic struck.
The system’s problems are well known. The Commons justice select committee, chaired by the Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, has accurately pinpointed deficiencies and the disastrous impact of cuts to legal aid on access to justice.The system’s problems are well known. The Commons justice select committee, chaired by the Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, has accurately pinpointed deficiencies and the disastrous impact of cuts to legal aid on access to justice.
Resistance has come from the Treasury. Its job was made easy when austerity began under the coalition government: Ken Clarke, a former chancellor and then justice secretary, was quick to offer up savings in his department.Resistance has come from the Treasury. Its job was made easy when austerity began under the coalition government: Ken Clarke, a former chancellor and then justice secretary, was quick to offer up savings in his department.
A more recent £1bn investment fund, partially funded by the sale of court buildings, has focused on necessary technological modernisation. The jury is still out on whether the money has been spent effectively or whether too many consultants benefited.A more recent £1bn investment fund, partially funded by the sale of court buildings, has focused on necessary technological modernisation. The jury is still out on whether the money has been spent effectively or whether too many consultants benefited.
What is galling for many are government boasts of a “world-class justice system” at a time when deep cuts to legal aid have made access to justice increasingly difficult for many on lower incomes.What is galling for many are government boasts of a “world-class justice system” at a time when deep cuts to legal aid have made access to justice increasingly difficult for many on lower incomes.
Entitlement thresholds for legal aid in criminal cases have not been updated for years meaning the number of unrepresented defendants is growing.Entitlement thresholds for legal aid in criminal cases have not been updated for years meaning the number of unrepresented defendants is growing.
Fees for legal aid cases, after years of being frozen, have grudgingly been raised a little. Criminal solicitors are abandoning the profession because it is no longer profitable.Fees for legal aid cases, after years of being frozen, have grudgingly been raised a little. Criminal solicitors are abandoning the profession because it is no longer profitable.
Lawyers, civil rights groups and former judges have been further alienated and alarmed by Boris Johnson’s casual undermining of the rule of law through his internal market bill, which contemplated tearing up an international treaty, and party speeches which scorned “lefty human rights lawyers, and other do-gooders”.Lawyers, civil rights groups and former judges have been further alienated and alarmed by Boris Johnson’s casual undermining of the rule of law through his internal market bill, which contemplated tearing up an international treaty, and party speeches which scorned “lefty human rights lawyers, and other do-gooders”.
Simplistic stereotypes and the hate figures of “fat-cat lawyers” still also feature in acrimonious debates over legal aid – restrictions to which have been the main instrument for throttling the MoJ’s budget.Simplistic stereotypes and the hate figures of “fat-cat lawyers” still also feature in acrimonious debates over legal aid – restrictions to which have been the main instrument for throttling the MoJ’s budget.
Funding is at the root of many of the justice system’s problems. Labour’s last election manifesto did promise legal aid for early advice, a halt to further court closures and the recruitment of hundreds of community lawyers.Funding is at the root of many of the justice system’s problems. Labour’s last election manifesto did promise legal aid for early advice, a halt to further court closures and the recruitment of hundreds of community lawyers.
While we all accept that we, or our loved ones, will one day need the NHS, we prefer not to think about ever having to go to court. The search for a political consensus for funding the justice system consequently remains elusive.While we all accept that we, or our loved ones, will one day need the NHS, we prefer not to think about ever having to go to court. The search for a political consensus for funding the justice system consequently remains elusive.
• This article was amended on 12 January 2021. It originally stated that the MoJ had lost around 40% of its budget in the last decade. While this was the size of the cut planned by the government, it has since provided additional funding, reducing the cut to around 25%. This has been corrected.