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England’s most senior judge has warned that the country’s international reputation for legal services risks being undermined by “deep-rooted” problems in the justice system.
Dame Sue Carr said on Tuesday that “significant” investment was required to address long court backlogs and that the period of time victims and defendants were having to wait for trials to be heard was a “real concern”.
Speaking at her first press conference since she became head of the judiciary last year, Carr said the country’s justice system remained world renowned. She pointed to the size of the UK legal services sector, which according to financial services group TheCityUK produced almost £44bn in revenues in 2022.
However, Carr, the first lady chief justice, warned that problems in the justice system, particularly in the criminal and family courts, had become “very deep rooted”.
A record high of about 66,500 cases are waiting to be heard in the crown court, which hears the most serious criminal cases.
The backlog has been driven by factors including court closures, infrastructure problems and a shortage of judges that can lead to hearings being delayed. Disruption during the pandemic and a strike by defence barristers over low pay in 2022 have added to the pressure.
“Timeliness is a real concern at the moment,” she said. “Swift and effective disposal of disputes is crucial for individuals, families and businesses.”
Sam Townend KC, chair of the Bar Council, told the Financial Times this week that London’s position as an international hub for corporate litigation and legal services was put under threat by court closures, poor maintenance and hold-ups elsewhere justice system.
Carr agreed there was a “very significant risk” that such problems could begin to erode the country’s reputation for justice.
“You can’t silo out the Rolls Building,” she said, referring to the flagship City of London venue that hears commercial disputes.
“The fact that our court estate across the board is not in good shape does potentially influence our standing internationally,” she said.
Carr said she wanted to be “as creative as possible” in how the courts could reduce backlogs, but that “when it comes to radical options I don’t have all the levers to really make a significant inroad . . . There has to be significant investment.”
Meanwhile, the first lady chief justice also said she would be “interested” in expanding the use of television cameras in courts.
Television cameras have since July 2022 been allowed into Crown Courts to show judges’ sentencing remarks. Hearings in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal also are broadcast.
Carr said she was now “very interested in extending filming to a wider cohort”, citing the Commercial Court as one potential option.
But she remained cautious given the risk that cameras could result in those in court “playing to the crowd” and said she wanted to ensure “people aren’t watching for the wrong reasons”.
Carr added the introduction of cameras had been a success “because we’ve rolled it out very slowly”.