Coronavirus (COVID-19)—Constitution Committee recommends access to justice reforms

Coronavirus (COVID-19)—Constitution Committee recommends access to justice reforms

The Constitution Committee has released the first of three reports on the implications that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had on the UK constitution, with particular focus on the impact on courts and tribunals across England and Wales. Among other things, the Committee has called on the government to increase the legal aid budget and implement a plan to reduce the considerable backlog of cases.

The key findings of the report are as follows:

• the significant reduction in funding for the justice system over the decade preceding the onset of the pandemic left courts and tribunals vulnerable. The pandemic exacerbated these pre-existing challenges

• the shift to remote hearings has had an uneven impact across the courts and tribunals service as senior courts adapted much easier than the lower courts. As most cases are dealt with in the lower courts, litigants who are most vulnerable were affected even more

• operational changes that were put in place in response to the pandemic should not be regarded as irreversible where there is a risk that they have undermined access to justice or consistency in how the law is applied across the country. The government should continue to invest in technology for remote hearings, with an ongoing process of engagement with the legal sector to ensure that access to justice is not being harmed

• publicly funded and legally aided sectors of the legal profession have suffered as a result of the pandemic, leading the Committee to recommend further increases to the legal aid budget to protect access to justice

• it may take several years before the backlog of criminal, family and employment cases returns to the level it was at before the pandemic. The Committee has recommended that the government should formulate a plan to help reduce this, such as investing in extra courtrooms and retired and part-time judges

• lack of data across the court service has exacerbated the difficulties faced by the justice system. The Committee has therefore recommended that the government should make commitments to data reform across the courts service

Source: Select Committee on the Constitution: COVID-19 and the Courts, 22nd Report of Session 2019-21

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