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Public Accounts Committee warns of “huge backlogs” in courts, justice system under “unprecedented pressure”

The Ministry of Justice "faces significant risks across the full range of its services, without a clear sense of prioritisation" and huge backlogs that have built up are causing "unacceptably long waiting times for people to access justice", the Public Accounts Committee has said.

In a report, Key challenges facing the Ministry of Justice, the PAC said: “The justice system is under unprecedented pressure…..The court reform programme is in its final phases but still not in the clear; a major programme of building new prisons is underway but threatened by an eye-watering maintenance backlog of around £1 billion; and HM Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS) an executive agency of the Ministry, is in the process of reunifying the probation service.

“These are daunting challenges, made more difficult by the need to plan for and manage the expected surge in demand across the criminal justice system from the recruitment of 20,000 new police officers.”

The MPs on the committee warned that the response to the pandemic had exacerbated existing pressures on the justice system.

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“The backlog in the court system means unacceptably long waiting times for people to access justice,” the report said. “We remain unconvinced that the Ministry and HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) have robust plans in place to manage the challenges in the court system, and for reducing the huge backlogs that have built up.”

The MPs said they were also concerned that restrictive regimes in prisons during the pandemic had worsened prisoner wellbeing and mental health, and social distancing had made the effective provision of rehabilitation and probation services much more challenging.

“While we are encouraged by HMPPS’s plans for managing the risks in the prison system and probation services, the maintenance backlog poses a real threat to achieving a safe and secure prison estate,” the report said.

The PAC note that after sustained pressure on its finances, the Ministry had received “a welcome uplift” in the 2020 Spending Review, including £4bn for new prison places and £119m to support recovery from the pandemic. “Even so, its long-term funding position remains uncertain and hampers its ability to make credible plans to address the risks it faces.”

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: "Victims and witnesses waiting in limbo because of the long waits for a day in Court mean justice is too often being delayed to the point of being denied. The prison estate is creaking and the new prison building programme is still years off completion. The promised extra 20,000 police will create more work for courts and prisons and put more pressure on an already severely overstretched system.

“A prison system operating with a dangerous maintenance backlog continues to swallow billions of taxpayers money but fails to deliver the key benefit society expects from that investment. The probation system is still reeling from 2014's massive and catastrophic experiment in reform and its juddering reversal.

“Our justice system is besieged on all sides and it is not clear the MoJ has a firm grip on this challenge even with a desperately needed funding boost. This isn’t justice for victims, offenders, taxpayers or society."

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