It is a great pleasure to be able to join you on the first day of the annual Bar and Young Bar Virtual Conference. I have been asked to speak to you on the topic of delivering justice in 2021.
Last Tuesday I was asked a question about generalised attacks on sectors of the legal profession at the start of my session before the Justice Select Committee. I explained that a vibrant independent legal profession is vital to the rule of law and that lawyers should not be attacked for doing their jobs. This is an important issue but it is outside the scope of my topic today. I nonetheless echo what I said last week because it is important and would encourage those with a few spare minutes to look at the detail of my comments – very easy to do on the Parliament website.
I propose to say a few words about three related issues. First, the response of the justice system to the COVID emergency. Secondly, the capacity of the courts to deal with the volumes of work we expect in all jurisdictions in the coming year whilst at the same time coping with increased backlogs. Thirdly, the need for proper funding in the immediate future.
The last eight months have been extraordinary for the administration of justice. In many parts of the world the operation of the courts came to a standstill. I was determined that nothing of that sort should happen in England and Wales. Even before lockdown I had encouraged judges to use technology as much as possible to support hearings, where it was in the interests of justice to do so. There was long experience of using telephones for procedural and interlocutory hearings in all jurisdictions and the use of video technology had been rolling out slowly across the system. In the early days after lockdown there was a shift to the increased use of telephone, particularly in Civil and Family. That said, in March this year few judges were equipped with telephones capable of being used for conference calls. That deficiency was made good quickly. Courts in all jurisdictions also moved to the use of commercially available online video platforms. In some courts we already had better systems, but not in many.