The Rt Hon The Lord Burnett of Maldon appeared before the House of Commons Justice Select Committee on Tuesday 16 November to give evidence on his work as the Lord Chief Justice of England & Wales. In a wide-ranging session, he addressed questions from MPs on topics ranging from his assessment of the health of the justice system through to the condition of the court estate, to judicial diversity and more.
Lord Burnett noted that the challenges of recovery from the pandemic remained. There were issues in some parts of the country with the number of judges and lawyers available to address the growth in the volume of outstanding criminal cases in the Crown Court. He explained how steps had been taken to encourage retired judges and those judges who sit part time in addition to a career as a barrister or solicitor to sit more frequently. These combined efforts had led to a recent reduction in the number of cases waiting to be heard, but Lord Burnett noted that there was a long way still to go to address the backlog of Crown Court cases which had built further during the pandemic.
To that end, he reflected that enhanced judicial recruitment was necessary to reduce the time before trials could be heard. He noted the need for sufficient funds to enable judges to sit all the days they possibly could. Recruitment could be aided, he added, by ensuring that courts and tribunals buildings were fit for purpose. There was a real likelihood, he said, that basic problems with heating, leaking roofs and broken lifts would have a significant impact on efficiency.
Lord Burnett recognised that developing an increasingly diverse judiciary was necessary to maintaining public confidence. A huge amount of work was going into this, he said, and was having an impact. More or less equal numbers of men and women were now being appointed, although progress was never as fast as one might hope and would take time to be seen in the higher ranks of judges. He noted that efforts had continued to encourage qualified people from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds to apply for judicial roles.
The Lord Chief Justice reflected on the continued improvements to court business which would flow from the HMCTS Reform Programme. A new Scheduling and Listing tool would help to ensure cases were listed more efficiently. Other benefits would be realised through the Common Platform and a better online platform for remote video hearings.
In discussing COVID-19, Lord Burnett praised the efforts and ability of judicial office holders, court staff and legal professionals to adapt and overcome the practical difficulties that would have restricted access to justice. These efforts had included new measures to allow for continued press and public access to the courts. This had, in some cases, allowed for greater attendance than would have been possible before, ensuring that open justice remained at the heart of the system.
A video of the proceedings is available on the Parliament website (external link, opens in a new tab) and a full transcript of the evidence session is available below.