‘Nine years of austerity’ was making the delivery of justice ‘ever more difficult’, according to the Lord Chief Justice in his annual report. Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who is coming to the end of a four-year term and will be succeeded by Sir Ian Burnett next month, began his report by saying that his final year in office had been ‘the most difficult’.
In a reference to attacks by sections of the press over the article 50 litigation, Lord Thomas said that the judiciary ‘has had to defend its independence’. ‘This is particularly important at a time where we see the deterioration of judicial independence in other jurisdictions,’ he said. ‘Judges in England and Wales decide cases without fear or favour. They must not be subject to improper pressure. Judicial independence, and its vital role in upholding the rule of law, should never be taken for granted.’
Thomas said that the delivery of criminal justice remained of ‘real concern’. ‘Whilst the number of cases continues to fall in both the Magistrates’ and Crown Courts, the complexity and length of cases continues to increase,’ he said. In particular, he said that the courts were faced with ‘a heavy volume of sexual offences both historic and contemporary’.
He also agreed with the view of the President of the Family Division that there was a ‘crisis’ in the family courts with a ‘large and sustained rise in public law applications’. ‘Between January and November 2016, the year-on-year increase averaged 20%,’ the report read. ‘This was on top of a similar scale of increase in 2015.’ The rise in caseload came ‘at a time of static judicial resources’, it added.
On diversity, Thomas said that there was ‘much more to be done’ to improve the recruitment of both female and BAME lawyers to the bench. The percentage of female judges had increased from 18% to 24% in the Court of Appeal in the last four years; from 18% to 22% in the High Court; 24% to 28% in other courts; and from 43% to 45% in the tribunals.
Change had been much slower amongst BAME judges: from 6% to 7% in the courts, and from 9% to 10% in the tribunals. Of the 16,129 magistrates, over half (54%) were female but just over one in 10 (11%) were from a BAME background. Almost nine out of 10 magistrates were over 50 years of age (85%).
Noting the 2014 judicial attitude survey finding of ‘serious loss of morale across the judiciary, Thomas said that the judiciary continued to be ‘immensely concerned’. However it noted that the court modernisation programme was ‘beginning to provide real opportunities to improve basic working conditions’ including better support for judges. Thomas hoped that issues relating to pay and pensions would be addressed by a review reporting to the Treasury by June 2018.
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