General Election 2024: Court Backlogs and Legal Aid

Even though votes are yet to be cast, the country appears to believe that the election is a run race and that the only question around Starmer’s rise to PM is the size of majority he will secure for Labour. Starmer’s steady hand has yet to waiver while it seems soggy Sunak has little chance of pulling it back as we enter the second half of the election campaign. Three weeks is a long time in politics…

With the manifestos now laid bare, we have seen few surprises from the two major parties and few rich pickings. Much has been made of Starmer’s background as the Director of Public Prosecutions and his real understanding of the issues facing the criminal justice system. But what exactly have he and Sunak said on plans to tackle court backlogs and legal aid? 

Labour have continued to champion an increase in prosecutors by allowing Associate Prosecutors (APs) to work on appropriate cases and encouraging a fast track of rape cases by introducing specialist courts at every crown court location in England and Wales. The kinds of ‘appropriate cases’ these APs will take on, however, have not been specified. The popular online blogger ‘The Secret Barrister’ argues that there is “literally nothing in Labour’s manifesto about the record Crown Court backlog”, with the AP proposal relating solely to the issue in the Magistrates’ Court. The Secret Barrister concludes that, “No government in history has caused as much damage to the criminal justice system, has created such appalling delays and has deliberately run up such an enormous backlog. And the official opposition don’t appear to have a clue how to address this.”

The Conservative manifesto seeks to cut the backlog by keeping open Nightingale court rooms, funding more sitting days and investing in court maintenance. Additionally, they look to continue with the digitisation of court processes, the expansion of the use of remote hearings, and to offer match funding for 100 criminal law pupillages to speed up justice for victims.  But as with all new recruits, experience takes time to build and have effect.

Labour’s ‘Hillsborough Law’ will place a legal duty of candour on public servants and authorities. The party says it will also provide legal aid to the tune of £30 million for victims of disasters or state-related deaths. On top of this, Starmer and co have set aside £5 million of their budget to appoint legal advocates to provide free legal advice and support to rape survivors across England and Wales.

On the other side of the political line, the Conservatives plan to expand the provision of legal aid at inquests related to major incidents where the Independent Public Advocate is appointed or in the aftermath of terrorist incidents, which would be widely welcomed.

What is sadly lacking from both is hard numbers in terms of investment that will be pledged to the administration of justice as a whole for the benefit of society. The public know the system is broken. The Law Society says we need an immediate investment of £11.3m for civic legal aid and the Bar Council says we need a “whole system review” through Royal Commission, which the Conservatives promised in their 2019 manifesto but which never materialised.

However, most voters will recognise there is little spare cash to be found down the back of the sofa to make this happen. One thing that would benefit the system which doesn’t cost £s is stability of the Minister for Justice position. Having someone stay in post long enough to grapple thoughtfully with the issues and offer meaningful leadership would be a welcome change.

Friday 14th June

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