Lord Burnett considers in committee evidence Legal Aid funding and coronavirus (COVID-19)

Lord Burnett considers in committee evidence Legal Aid funding and coronavirus (COVID-19)

The Courts and Tribunals Judiciary has published key highlights from the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett’s evidence given to Parliament’s Constitution Committee. Lord Burnett considers the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the courts, Legal Aid funding, the modernisation of the courts, judicial diversity and recruitment, government relations and Wales.

Coronavirus

Considering the changes that were required to be made, Lord Burnett said:

‘What we did in the early stages was to pivot to the use of technology where it was appropriate and in interests of justice. It’s right that I should pay tribute to the staff and judges in the courts and also to the users in the courts for enabling that to happen in very difficult circumstances.

‘Looking back to the position 14 months ago, we are now using a product called Cloud Video Platform (CVP) which isn’t perfect but provides a relatively stable and good online platform.’

Following the pause of jury trials, and after ‘quite elaborate preparations’ were made, Lord Burnett outlines that:

‘Both in the magistrates’ and crown courts, volumes of work being disposed of now are back to pre-COVID levels. Outstanding caseloads are gently falling. In the crown courts, we are doing more work, in the sense of more sitting days, than we have done since May 2015. The position been really quite remarkable in all jurisdictions.’

Retaining and recruiting court staff

During the evidence session, Lord Burnett was questioned on staff recruitment with regard to Ministry of Justice pay scales, and outlined that ‘[t]he retention problem is a really serious one for the courts service’.

Lord Burnett expressed his disappointment that the government has not been able to help with staff retention problem, continuing to say:

‘I understand that a proposal is being developed by the MoJ to try to resolve this issue and it will require Treasury approval. It’s absolutely idiotic that HMCTS recruits good people and trains them, then quickly loses them. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen.’

How had the 40% decrease in Legal Aid budget impacted people’s access to justice?

In consideration of the above question posed to him by the Committee, Lord Burnett outlined how important it is to have a ‘vibrant and capable criminal defence community’ for the rule of law and administration of justice.

Continuing, Lord Burnett stated:

‘The MoJ and Lord Chancellor has commissioned a review of LA, not only looking at the rates of remuneration are such that someone could make a reasonable living at it, but also looking at its structure because there is a real concern that the way in which criminal LA is structured does not incentivise the lawyers to get on top of the case at the very early stage, which might result in it being squeezed out of the system, but encourages cases to trickle on. That is very bad for the administration of justice and does nothing to resolve the outstanding caseload. I’m optimistic the review will offer some deep insights into the future of LA, in crime in particular.’

Other considerations

Lord Burnett was also questioned on the following areas:

• whether there were enough ethnic minority or women recruits

• whether the views of the judiciary were represented sufficiently with the government, and how he would strengthen that knowledge and understanding

• how two thirds of judges in England and Wales, in a recent Judicial Attitudes Survey, feel less respected by society than they were a few years ago, and how over a third have safety concerns outside of court

• Welsh legal system considerations, particularly with regards family and property case law

Source: Lord Chief Justice gives evidence to Parliament’s Constitution Committee

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