A recently published Parliamentary report of the key challenges facing the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) finds the system under unprecedented pressure. The review found the Ministry to be facing significant risks across all of its services, including courts and tribunals, prisons and probation services. Here we summarise the report’s main findings.
The court backlog
The justice sector has been particularly affected by the strain of national lockdowns, creating a huge backlog of Crown Court cases and extremely long wait times for people to access justice. This has had a substantial impact on defendants, some of whom are held in custody on remand, and on victims and witnesses. Notably, the report states, “stakeholders are concerned that it could take years to clear the backlog that has now accumulated”.
Prison places threatened
A major programme of building new prisons is underway, but progress was found to be threatened by a considerable maintenance backlog, the cost of which is estimated to be around £1 billion. The backlog poses a real challenge to achieving a safe and secure prison estate.
The recruitment of 20,000 new police officers is expected to cause a surge in demand across the criminal justice system.
The MoJ received a £4bn uplift for new prison places in the 2020 Spending Review, as well as an additional £119 million for post-pandemic recovery. However, long-term funding uncertainty still hangs in the balance. The Ministry requires considerable financial stimulus to overcome the judicial system’s current challenges.
Prisoner mental health
Improving the mental health of prisoners is a difficult and complex task at the best of times. The report recognised the further challenges faced due to the necessary restriction on regimes throughout the pandemic.
A response from the Ministry
Speaking to The Law Society Gazette, a MoJ spokesperson said: “Our response to coronavirus has saved lives, kept the courts system running, and ultimately protected the public. More and more cases are being heard every week, we have opened 56 Nightingale courtrooms and have a record number open for jury trials. On top of this, £450m is being invested to deliver speedier justice for victims and our measures in prisons have ensured infections and deaths have been far lower than experts predicted.”
There is concern that the scale of the problem is being played down. Justice Minister, Lord Wolfson QC, was reported as having told MPs they should stop talking about the backlog and focus on throughput instead.
The Parliamentary Committee’s review concludes that the Ministry is unprepared for managing complex change alongside recovering from the pandemic and meeting the expected increase in demand in courts, prisons and probation services. This is exacerbated by the government’s plans for an extra 20,000 police officers and new sentencing reforms.
Concerns have been raised over inadequate data for planning and a lack of prioritisation by the MoJ. The impact of deep funding cuts over many years was also seen as significant. In the Committee’s recommendations, the MoJ has been asked to set out its plans within one month, to include projections and timeframes for clearing the court backlog and explain how it is managing the impact of the pandemic on the court reform programme. A timeframe for responding to the recommendations set out in the 2019 Digital Justice report was also requested.
Other recommendations included an acceleration of wellbeing programmes for prisoners and the development of an action plan for supporting staff across the system. As part of a longer-term strategy, the MoJ must establish how it will work with other departments to understand demand for prison places and reduce the maintenance backlog in the existing prison estate.
Modernising Criminal Justice Conference 2021
Our forthcoming event on 23 June, Modernising Criminal Justice, will bring together over 500 policy leaders, justice professionals, and government officials to share their insights and strategies for addressing the key issues and driving transformation in the criminal justice sector today. Here is the full agenda.
Jessica Kimbell, GovNet