Crumbling courts in England and Wales exacerbate trial delays, report reveals

Dilapidated court buildings across England and Wales with problems such as leaking toilets and broken heating are contributing to a backlog of crown court cases, according to a new report published on Monday.

The Law Society of England and Wales questioned more than 440 solicitors about whether court infrastructure was fit for purpose and found that the poor state of repair to court buildings was a contributor to the huge backlog of trials — particularly in criminal cases.

The backlog of criminal cases in the crown courts rose from 41,045 in March 2020 to 62,517 at the end of September 2022, increasing waiting times for defendants, witnesses and victims. In the family courts care cases now take around 49 weeks to be dealt with.

The courts have been hard hit by government austerity measures imposed a decade ago — which saw justice funding cut by 24 per cent between 2010 and 2019 with 239 court closures over the past 12 years.

The Law Society reported that two-thirds of respondents had experienced delays in cases being heard in the past 12 months because of the physical state of the courts — including cases cancelled owing to flooding, repairs, broken heating and a lack of judges.

In the report, one solicitor said of a London magistrates’ court: “The walls are falling in, tiles falling off, the roof leaks. Last year sewage came up into the cells.” Another lawyer describing a London crown court said: “Everything is falling apart. Chairs and floors are held together with gaffer tape. Ceilings leak, toilets leak and fail to flush. Mould everywhere.”

Lubna Shuja, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: “The poor state of court buildings across England and Wales is both a contributor to the huge backlog of court cases and a stark illustration of the lack of investment in our justice system.” 

The Law Society has urged the government to invest further in buildings, hire more staff and judges as well as install more reliable technology.

The society’s conclusions chime with evidence given to MPs about the crumbling state of the courts by Lord Ian Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales who told the parliamentary justice committee in November 2021 that “every winter we lose hearings because the heating has broken and there is a limit to how much you can expect people to sit in court in coats, in bobble hats and in gloves”.

Sir Bob Neill, chair of the justice committee, recently said that typically 50 or so courtrooms across England and Wales were regularly out of use — about 14 per cent of the crown court space, largely because of poor maintenance.

The Bar Council, which represents barristers, also said in a report published last month that some court buildings posed health and safety concerns and highlighted a Welsh court that had an infestation of fleas, a court that had sewage pouring down the walls and a London court where a barrister had to conduct a hearing holding an umbrella above his head because the roof was leaking.

The Ministry of Justice said: “Last year we announced the largest funding increase for the justice system in more than a decade, solidifying our commitment to making sure it protects the public and supports victims.

“We’ve digitised a raft of court services since 2016 and are investing £175mn in court maintenance to ensure they are fit for the 21st century,” it added.

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