My Lord Mayor, thank you for your introduction and for hosting this event. Tonight would have been the occasion of the judges dinner which, for COVID related reasons, has been beyond the capacity of even the City of London to organise.
Nonetheless, I am grateful to you and to the Corporation for enabling me to say a few words this evening. I am also grateful, My Lord Mayor, for all the support the City of London provides to the judiciary. Progress being made on the new justice centre at Salisbury Square is just one example.
This evening marks the second occasion at which the Lord Chancellor will make a speech at this event, a relatively rare phenomenon in modern times, albeit both remotely. My Lord Chancellor, my hope is that we shall see you again next year at a more normal occasion.
I would like to speak today about the position of England and Wales as a jurisdiction as we emerge from the pandemic and what is needed to ensure that it continues to flourish .
We will learn lessons from the adaptations that were necessary to ensure that the wheels of justice continued to turn during the last 16 months. In the early days it was hard going in every jurisdiction as those involved in proceedings moved to increased use of technology. There will be no going back to February 2020. The courts in England and Wales and the tribunals have done remarkably well to keep operating in difficult conditions . We can take heart from just how much it has been possible to do and that the way the courts have worked has sustained the international position of the jurisdiction. Equally, the pandemic has shed more light on the inherent fragilities in the system, highlighted in the public debate around increased backlogs and delays.
Not all the commentary on outstanding caseloads has been accurate. Nonetheless the increased attention on the justice system is welcome. The delays caused by COVID have exposed the implications if the justice system is not working smoothly and quickly. There are costs in human and financial terms to individuals, to businesses and to society if cases take too long to resolve.
As a country, we must not lose sight of what this tells us about the value that should be attached to the courts and tribunals. They are much more than a public service available to those who find themselves using them. They form one of the bedrocks of a free society governed by the rule of law.
The criminal courts receive most attention. However, the value to the economy of a justice system that enables private and business disputes to be solved quickly is of equal importance; so too the value to society of the smooth resolution of family disputes to enable adults to contribute fully to the economy and children to flourish; and of the resolution of individual disputes with the state through tribunals.
If we value justice, we must act accordingly. I would like to highlight four things that will be vital to build on the jurisdiction’s strong position for the future.
We have done well to limit the growth in outstanding cases. But we cannot now reduce levels as fast as we would like. Years of budgetary squeezes have reduced the resilience and flexibility of the courts and tribunals, limiting capacity. We do not currently have enough judges or staff and lack both the quantity and quality of buildings and technology necessary. I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for having secured additional funding for the changes needed to enable our buildings to continue to operate and urgently to provide additional technology and staff to support it. That, however, is just the beginning. If we value justice, sufficient funding must be provided, not just as a temporary stopgap, but on a sustained basis. It was encouraging to hear the Prime Minister restate in Parliament only a fortnight ago his support for further funding.
We must also modernise to ensure the courts are resilient and flexible. It was fortunate that the modernisation programme was underway when the pandemic struck. That enabled much to happen which otherwise would have been impossible. Yet with full digitisation, better equipment and a bespoke video conferencing facility we could have done much more. It would be unforgivable if the courts were not better equipped were another crisis to strike. The modernisation programme, underway now for more than four years, is vital to the long-term health of the administration of justice.
All must have access to the courts and tribunals to resolve disputes. Nonetheless, litigation should not be the first port of call when things go wrong. Early resolution, out of court is usually in the best interests of all concerned. Many of the disputes that do enter the court system are resolved long before a final hearing, others only when that final hearing is imminent. Our systems should facilitate early resolution. Work is going on in all jurisdictions to encourage that and discourage unnecessary or ineffective hearings. An early guilty plea for example in a criminal case rather than one close to trial means justice is served more quickly. A business dispute resolved out of court saves costs and allows those concerned to devote their energies to productive endeavours. Family disputes resolved amicably and quickly leave less damage in their wake. Employment claims settled through arbitration avoid the prolonged pain of a dispute fought out in a tribunal.
The rule of law and independence of the judiciary
As we adapt the courts and tribunals to stand ready for the future we must not neglect the fundamentals that underpin the strength of our jurisdiction.
The courts in England and Wales, and indeed elsewhere in the United Kingdom, are trusted at home and abroad because of the high level of respect for the rule of law and the institutional and personal independence of our judiciary. That is a major factor in the attraction of this country as a destination for investment and its reliability as an international partner.
The independence of the judiciary was given statutory protection over 300 years ago. It has been in the DNA of the nation ever since. The rule of law with all its well understood facets has been unquestioned. The essence of both have been exported around the world and feature in the constitutions of almost all Commonwealth countries, and others that are based on the Westminster model and the common law. Reputations can take a long time to establish but can be dissolved in an instant, sometimes inadvertently. The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary should be cherished by all, and it will remain part of my function to nourish both.
My Lord Mayor, I remain grateful for your having given me the opportunity to make these points. May I add one more? Perhaps the greatest lesson from the last 16 months is that the health of the courts and tribunals depends most of all on the dedication of the judges, magistrates and staff who support us across the country and in all jurisdictions, and to whom I would like to express my profound gratitude. If we value justice, we must value them.
Lord Burnett of Maldon
The Lord Chief Justice