Poor state of English and Welsh courts exacerbates backlog, says Law Society | UK criminal law

Broken heating, sewage, mould, asbestos and leaking toilets and roofs are among the problems lawyers face in courts in England and Wales, a Law Society survey has found.

Around two-thirds of respondents said they had experienced delays in cases being heard in the past year because of the physical condition of the courts, and their trade body warned that it was contributing to the large backlog.

Other problems identified by lawyers include lack of private rooms for client consultations, broken air conditioning, lack of drinking water or other refreshments, poor technology, broken elevators and other accessibility issues, which particularly affect clients and advocates with disabilities,

Less than a fifth of respondents considered court buildings fit for purpose “to a great extent”.

A lawyer said from Thames magistrates court in east London: “The walls are falling in, tiles are falling off, the roof is leaking. The consultation rooms are not private and many seats are broken. Inside court seven, it is particularly gloomy. No air con. Often heating broken. Last year sewage got into the cells, it took a day before it was decided to close the cells.”

Another said: “I had a piece of an air conditioner fall on my head at a courthouse a few years ago and the ceiling fan it fell from was still unfixed when I last went.”

The Bar Association invited 9,663 lawyers with higher public rights to complete the online survey, with 446 answering all the questions and 135 answering some of them.

Almost half said they had experienced cases being postponed due to the state of the courts, and a quarter had cases transferred to another location. Delays and cancellations were said to have left clients in limbo, denied justice and wasted time and costs.

Writing about a crown court in London, one lawyer said: “Everything is falling apart. Chairs and floor are held together with duct tape. Ceilings leak, toilets leak and fail to flush. Mold everywhere.”

There were several accounts of broken heating and poor air conditioning, meaning some pitches were too hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter.

Wood Green crown court, in north London, is said to have closed due to broken heating on Tuesday, while delays or cancellations due to the cold were also reported at several other courts last week.

One respondent said non-functioning air conditioning in the summer at Southwark Crown Court led to “sickness from overheating of jurors and staff”.

Lubna Shuja, head of the Law Society, said: “The poor condition of court buildings across England and Wales is a contributor to the huge backlog of court cases and a stark illustration of the lack of investment in our justice system,

“Decades of damage cannot be reversed overnight, but urgent action can halt this decline before it is too late.”

The report was published on Monday, the same day that the Bar Association launched a plan to deal with the backlog of cases, which is over 62,000 in the crown courts. Investment in buildings, staff and judges was one of five recommendations. The others funded legal aid, kept cases out of court, installed reliable technology and better data collection to highlight where investment is needed.

A Justice Department spokesman said it had announced the biggest funding increase for the justice system in more than a decade. “We have digitized a range of court services since 2016 and are investing £175m in court maintenance to ensure they are fit for the 21st century,” the spokesperson said.

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