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December 18, 2014

Reading between the lines of the Lord Chief Justice’s annual report

The Lord Chief Justice cannot criticise government policy so its worth both reading the text and the sub text in his Annual Report which was published this week.

1) Criminal court workload. “In spite of the fall in recorded crime, the criminal courts at each level remain busy. The workload has increased overall but the biggest impact has been from the very substantial increase in the number of trials involving sexual offences and violence against the person, which tend to occupy more court time and have fewer guilty pleas. Despite an increase in court sitting days over the past two years a backlog of cases had already built up due to the unexpected increase in work and so resources have not in fact kept pace”.  I was slightly surprised to read this, since the workload of the magistrates’ courts has definitely declined – hence the huge reduction in the number of magistrates in the last five years.  It strikes me that the challenge is to keep more work in the under-used magistrates’ courts through giving magistrates (and clerks) more confidence that some cases do not need to be sent up.  On the delays in cases in the crown court, I think it would be good to get some hard figures.

2) Judicial diversity. “There are more women sitting as magistrates than men: over 52% out of a total of 21,626, and just under 9% of all magistrates are from an ethnic minority background”.  The LCJ does not mention perhaps the most troubling of diversity stats for magistrates – age.  57% of magistrates are over 60.  Also not mentioned is the under-representation of working class people among magistrates, and any steps being taken to improve the diversity of the magistracy – all steps cited to increase diversity are focussed on the paid judiciary.

3) Local courts.”There is also a very significant maintenance backlog in the court estate which is not properly suited to the delivery of justice in the modern era and there are insufficient resources to enable it to be staffed properly”.  The LCJ makes no mention of court closures.  He is a supporter of local justice done in local courts but his report  implies that more court closures are on the way.  And the point re staff is alarming…does he mean that HMCTS can’t staff courts properly now?  If so, some would agree.