'Sticking plasters will not cut it': Lawyers demand Royal Commission into criminal justice from next government

The Bar Council has called for a Royal Commission into criminal justice (PA Wire)
The Bar Council has called for a Royal Commission into criminal justice (PA Wire)

Lawyers are calling for a Royal Commission on the ailing criminal justice system after the General Election, in a bid to tackle prison overcrowding, low numbers of judges, and chronic delays in the courts.

The Bar Council told MPs there needs to be a “whole system review” of the sector, with victims, defendants and witnesses facing years waiting for justice in a crown court backlog of more than 67,000 cases.

The Conservative government had set a target of reducing the backlog to 53,000 by March next year, but the numbers continued to rise rather than fall during 2023.

Recently, emergency measures have been activated to tackle a crisis of prison places, including using police cells to house inmates, delaying defendants being brought to court, and the early release of some convicts.

“The Bar Council is calling for a ‘whole system’ review of criminal justice through a Royal Commission”, said chair Sam Townend KC.

“The existing criminal justice policy is now at a ‘dead end’ and substantial change and investment are needed to reduce the backlog.

“The status quo has a detrimental impact on victims, attrition of witnesses, and innocent defendants are left for years languishing with the chargesoppressively held over their heads.

“The guilty are not being dealt with and the public has lost confidence in a system that is just not working.”

Last week, the National Audit Office (NAO) delivered its findings from an investigation into the crown court backlog, which started to grow in 2019thanks to budget cuts and spiralled during the pandemic.

The Ministry of Justice’s most recent projection for the backlog in March next year is 64,000, after steps were taken including unlimited sitting days for judges and extra ‘Nightingale’ courts.

However the NAO found that average waiting times in the crown court have gone up from 486 days in 2019 to 683 days at the end of 2023, and the size of the backlog is putting extra pressure on prison places as defendants wait in custody for their trials.

There are dwindling numbers of lawyers working in criminal law, and a rising number of trials which cannot take place as expected, including times when a barrister or a judge is not available.

The NAO found that the Criminal Justice Board did not sit for two years between 2021 and 2023, despite have a role in bringing together all parts of the criminal justice system to find solutions.

Operation Early Dawn was recently activated by Justice Secretary Alex Chalk, to slow down the flow of cases into the magistrates courts in order to ease the pressure on prisons.

Early releases are now being made up to 70 days before the end of sentences, amid fears that some prisoners are being let out before adequate risk assessments have been done.

“The criminal justice system can no longer operate in crisis mode, lurching from one emergency measure to another, week after week”, said the Bar Council.

“Sticking plasters will not cut it, a wholesale policy refresh and investment in the whole justice system is needed now.”

In evidence to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, the body has recommended improvements in early guilty pleas, prison transport,the use of remote court hearings, judicial recruitment, and court listing services.