Lord chief justice says in annual report to parliament that one result is rise in number of litigants unrepresented in court
The lord chief justice, Lord Thomas, also said judges felt under-appreciated. Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA
Civil justice is unaffordable for most people, more people are being forced to represent themselves, and judges – whose pensions have been cut – feel underappreciated, according to the lord chief justice.
In his annual report to parliament, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd welcomed the government’s commitment to spending £780m on modernisation and new technology, but delivered a downbeat assessment of the courts in England and Wales.
“Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most,” Thomas said in the introduction to his report. “In consequence there has been a considerable increase of litigants in person for whom our current court system is not really designed.
“Although in common with many other European states the number of court buildings has been reduced through closure, the failure to invest has meant that many of the courtrooms have not been modernised and lack modern means of communication to provide for better access to justice.”
Steep increases in court fees, which judges formally opposed, have meant that the judiciary “whilst accepting the decisions by parliament to increase fees, remains deeply concerned about the effect on access to justice,” Thomas said.
Investment in modernising the courts and the development of online justice would improve the system’s ability to respond to the public’s need, he said.
Thomas, the head of the judiciary in England and Wales, said that judges, in common with many other people, felt their burden of work had increased. “For example, they are having to handle an ever-increasing quantity of challenging and emotionally charged cases in family and crime, as well as an increase in litigants in person,” he said.
“Although judges recognise that they are well paid in comparison to most people, static pay … and adverse alterations to pension arrangements … have had a significant impact. In addition, there has, overall, been a widespread feeling of not being valued or appreciated for their work.”
He said a recent survey had found that 77% of judges with leadership responsibilities felt their work had increased significantly in the past three years, and that they were having to deal with an increasing number of complex matters in addition to their daily court sittings.
More effort needs to be made in explaining “the importance of the judicial system in maintaining a just and fair society, accountable and democratic government and a strong economy”, he said. “No satisfactory means of funding the provision of our system of justice has yet been achieved.”
Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, the new chair of the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, said: “The British justice system is the envy of the world. However, as this report [by the lord chief justice] suggests, the reputation of our courts and their ability to serve the public is under threat.
“Cuts to legal aid have resulted in the courts being flooded with people representing themselves without legal advice or representation, including those in emotionally difficult circumstances such as losing access to their children, facing the loss of their home, or fighting deportation to a country where they might be persecuted.
“The real hardship being faced in the family courts is reflected in the recent Bar pro bono unit statistics – family case applications increased by 32% in 2013 and 60% in 2014. Justice is not a luxury, and everyone should be able to defend their rights through the legal system.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “As the justice secretary [Michael Gove] has said, our courts and tribunals need urgent reform. That is why we are investing over £700m to transform and modernise the courts and tribunal service. We are determined to deliver the swift and certain justice that the public rightly expects.”