Spending review: Sunak pledges millions to tackle courts backlog
By John Hyde >>
Chancellor Rishi Sunak today pledged to increase justice spending in 2021/22 to tackle the increasing backlog in courts and tribunals.
Sunak said the Treasury’s settlement with the Ministry of Justice will deliver a 3.3% annual real terms increase. Core resource funding is up by £145m in 2021/22 and the department’s capital budget also increases by £237m next year.
In total the MoJ budget will be £10.1bn in 2021/22, up from £8.1bn in 2019/20.
The settlement also makes provision for £119m additional funding to support the wider justice system’s response to Covid-19: this includes £76m to further increase family court and employment tribunal capacity to reduce backlogs and £43m to ensure that courts and prisons remain Covid-safe.
The chancellor pledged £337m extra funding for the criminal justice system to ensure ‘swift and effective justice’ to convict offenders and support victims. The Treasury said this includes £275m to manage the ‘downstream demand impact of 20,000 additional police officers and reduce backlogs in the Crown court caused by Covid-19’. There were no pledges for increases in legal aid spending.
Bar chair Amanda Pinto QC described the increase as ‘a ray of hope in terms of fixing the many problems our justice system faces. It is a sign that this government understands the importance of investing in the entire justice system from start to finish.’ The Law Society welcomed the increase – but said that after decades of cuts, much more needs to be done.
Law Society of England president David Greene said: ‘As part of our Reset, Resilience and Recovery campaign we called for extra funds to make the justice system sustainable. We are pleased the chancellor has listened and adopted our recommendations.
‘Justice in this country was in a dire situation already before the pandemic, and is under pressure now like never before, so the £275 million pledged to reduce persistent Crown court backlogs has come not a moment too soon.’
The legal sector had been eagerly awaiting the chancellor’s spending review plans amid fresh warnings about the fragile state of the courts system – and fears that much-trailed increases in defence spending would be at the cost of cuts elsewhere.
Sir Bob Neill, chair of the justice committee, wrote to Rishi Sunak on the eve of his statement warning that many jurisdictions of the courts and tribunals service will find themselves in an ‘unsustainable’ situation in 2021 without more funding. He wrote: ‘There is a high likelihood that even if the public health situation improves in 2021, without the substantial increase in investment that could enable a further dramatic acceleration of the court reform programme, the problems in the courts could get worse.
‘Our view is that this is a critical juncture for the long-term sustainability of the justice system and that what is needed is an extraordinary level of investment in order to reverse decades of under-investment.’
The committee’s pleas echoed those of the lord chief justice, who has been unusually forthright in his requests for more funding during public appearances in recent weeks. Lord Burnett of Maldon told the committee earlier this month there should be a ‘realistic assessment’ in every jurisdiction of the likely work coming into the system and the additional backlogs that must be cleared.
According to HM Courts & Tribunals Service, the number of outstanding cases in magistrates’ courts was almost 490,000 by the end of October – a steady fall since July but still 20% higher than the pre-Covid baseline. Meanwhile, the outstanding workload in the Crown court has reached 51,595 – the highest all year and 31% higher than in March.
In his annual report released this month, Lord Burnett also stated that the reform and modernisation programme ‘must be seen to its conclusion, with appropriate funding made available to complete the job’.
Sunak made no specific mention of the court modernisation programme in his spending review. The £1bn courts modernisation programme, which includes plans to make the county court paperless, has already been put back by a year and is due to finish in 2023.
(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)