Collapsing courts in England and Wales are exacerbating trial delays, report finds

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

The Law Society of England and Wales surveyed over 440 lawyers about the adequacy of court infrastructure and found that the poor condition of court buildings contributed to the huge backlog of cases, particularly in criminal cases.

The backlog of criminal cases in the Crown Courts has increased from 41,045 in March 2020 to 62,517 at the end of September 2022, increasing waiting times for defendants, witnesses and victims. In family courts, care cases now take around 49 weeks to process.

Courts have been hit hard by austerity measures imposed by the government a decade ago, which cut justice funding by 24% between 2010 and 2019, with 239 court closures in the last 12 years.

The Law Society reported that two-thirds of respondents had experienced delays in hearing cases in the past 12 months due to the physical state of the courts – including cases canceled due to flooding, repairs, heating failures and a lack of judges.

In the report, a lawyer said of a London magistrates court: “The walls are crumbling, the tiles are falling, the roof is leaking. Last year, sewage arrived in the cells. Another lawyer describing a London Crown Court said: ‘Everything is falling apart. Chairs and floors are held together with tape. Ceilings leak, toilets leak and won’t flush. Mold everywhere.

Lubna Shuja, President of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: “The poor condition of court buildings in 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 judicial system. .”

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

The society’s findings are consistent with evidence given to MPs about the dilapidated state of the courts by Lord Ian Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, who told the House Justice Committee in November 2021 that “every winter we lose audiences because the heating has broken down”. and there is a limit to what you can expect people to sit in court in coats, bobble hats and gloves.”

Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Justice Committee, recently said that around 50 courtrooms in England and Wales were regularly out of use – around 14% of Crown court space, in largely due to poor maintenance.

The Bar Council, which represents lawyers, also said in a report last month that some court buildings posed health and safety concerns and highlighted a flea-infested Welsh court, a court where water worn down the walls and a London courthouse. where a lawyer had to hold a hearing holding an umbrella over his head because the roof was leaking.

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

“We have digitized a range of court services since 2016 and are investing £175m in upkeep of the courts to ensure they are fit for the 21st century,” he added.

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