Burnett’s “regret” at court estate under-funding

Burnett: General civil work is very busy

The Lord Chief Justice has expressed his “regret” that the government has not provided the money to repair and maintain the court estate.

Lord Burnett also highlighted the “acute” pressures on county courts across the country.

In his annual report, he said there continued to be a number of problems affecting the entire court and tribunal estate, including the age and poor condition of the buildings and delays in getting reported problems fixed.

“Examples include flooding and IT and power outages. Physical problems can also create security breaches. Rural courts are often neglected at the expense of those in large cities and there is a general lack of funds for basic maintenance and repair which are often desperately needed.”

It was, Lord Burnett said, “a matter of regret that resources have not been made available by government to begin to tackle the backlog of repairs and maintenance”.

But he also expressed his gratitude to the government for its “continued financial support” for the court digitisation project.

The report recorded that pressure on local civil justice “continues to be acute”.

Lord Burnett wrote: “At county court level, challenges caused by shortages in civil judicial resources remain, worsening the adverse impact on the timeliness of cases being determined and increasing pressure on the frontline judiciary, despite the recruitment of significant numbers of deputy district judges.

“The numbers of county court claims fell slightly in the second quarter of 2019 down 6% to 465,000 when compared to the same period in 2018.

“Priority is being given to improving security standards and health and safety in the county court. The quality, quantity and breadth of work dealt with by the judiciary within the county court is recognised and appreciated by the Lord Chief Justice.”

More broadly, the Lord Chief Justice said general civil work was “very busy”, with a significant proportion of the trials and applications concerning high-value clinical negligence and personal injury actions.

The Commercial Court continued to attract a large number of significant and high-value claims, with 75% of its work international. Similarly, in 2018, 80% of the work of the Patents Court and 58% of the Competition List was international.

The report said cases issued in the Technology and Construction Court have been increasing, up 15% in the first six months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018.

“Many of these relate to the major infrastructure projects currently underway in the UK such as the upgrades to the London Underground lines, the HS2 projects and renewable energy projects including those off-shore. There have also been an increasing number of cases concerning challenges to public procurement competitions.”

The civil division of the Court of Appeal, meanwhile, still faced a “disproportionate” number of “unmeritorious” immigration and asylum cases.

“Work continues with Ministry of Justice to address that issue which will improve the waiting times for hearings,” Lord Burnett said.

In the criminal division, he noted an increase in the number of applications by litigants in person, requiring greater input from legal staff.

“Although the average waiting time from receipt to disposal is above target, there has been a reduction in the total number of outstanding cases. Given the strain on resources, this is a reflection of the hard work of the judges of the court and the staff who support them.”

Criminal law specialists have been increasingly complaining about the lack of sitting days, with courts laying empty, and the report said the latest figures indicate that sitting levels for the first quarter of the financial year have resulted in an increase of 430 outstanding cases compared to the previous quarter. “This is the first time outstanding caseloads have increased since 2014.”

At the end of 2018, outstanding caseloads at the Crown Court of 32,500 were at their lowest level since 2000.

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