Bar Council calls for royal commission to address criminal justice system backlogs

The Council highlighted several areas that could significantly alleviate the backlog

Bar Council calls for royal commission to address criminal justice system backlogs

The Bar Council has called for a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system in the U.K. to address the growing backlog in criminal courts, The Law Society Gazette reported.

This call comes five years after the Conservative Party promised a review of its election manifesto. In written evidence submitted to the Public Accounts Committee's inquiry on reducing the backlog in criminal courts, the Bar Council emphasized the justice system's interconnected nature. They noted that changes to one part of the system often lead to adverse effects in another. The Council argued that only a whole-system review, ideally conducted by a royal commission, can effectively address the issues hampering the elimination of the backlog.

The Bar Council also reiterated its plea for additional funding, particularly for legal aid and the court estate. They urged the Criminal Legal Aid Advisory Board and other stakeholders to develop concrete proposals for better-targeted funds to support those performing this challenging and vital work.

The Council highlighted several areas that could significantly alleviate the backlog, including providing free early legal advice, reforming the current credit system for early guilty pleas, handling certain offences out of court, and improving the efficiency of prison transport and interpretation services.

Bar chair Sam Townend KC said, "Our submission shows that the existing criminal justice policy is now at a dead end and substantial change and investment are needed to reduce the backlog." Townend pointed out that recent initiatives such as Operation Early Dawn and the 70-day early release scheme have demonstrated how changes can lead to adverse and unexpected consequences.

"The criminal justice system can no longer operate in crisis mode, lurching from one emergency measure to another, week after week. Sticking plasters will not cut it. A wholesale policy refresh and investment in the whole justice system is needed now," Townend added.

The last royal commission on criminal justice was established on March 14, 1991, and reported two years later. A 2019 Conservative manifesto pledge promised to set up a royal commission, and this pledge was reiterated in the subsequent Queen’s speech. However, in 2022, ministers indicated that the plan had been shelved.

The backlog in Crown court cases reached 67,492 in March 2024, marking a 12 percent increase from the previous year. Before the pandemic, in the last quarter of 2019, the Crown court backlog stood at 37,964 cases.

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