The Lord Chief Justice has warned of “a very worrying shortfall” in the recruitment of salaried members to the District Bench this year, saying that it will have adverse consequences for the family and civil jurisdictions.
The warning came in Lord Burnett of Maldon’s foreword to his annual report, which was laid in Parliament today (5 November).
The LCJ did say, however, that he was optimistic that the position in relation to High Court judges was “on the mend”.
Lord Burnett noted that the number of High Court judges recently recruited was greater than last year, although he also cautioned that “we are not yet back to full strength”.
The LCJ said he welcomed the Government’s commitment to legislative change to deal with the "fundamental problems" which flow from changes to the Judicial Pension Scheme.
“That commitment, together with the interim steps now in place, is welcome. It will help to secure the strength and quality of the judiciary and ameliorate problems in recruitment,” he suggested.
The LCJ said that the year covered by the report had meanwhile seen “increased pressure in most jurisdictions against the reality of extremely tight resources. More is being done with less.”
It was “a matter of regret” that resources had not been made available by government to begin to tackle the backlog of repairs and maintenance needed in the court estate, Lord Burnett said.
Meetings with judges and magistrates across the country had allowed him to “see first-hand the poor conditions in which both staff and judges work in many court centres and which have to be endured by members of the public”.
The report itself pointed to the age and poor condition of buildings and delays in getting reported problems fixed which can affect business with hearings adjourned. Examples included flooding and IT and power outages. Physical problems could also create security breaches, it said. Rural courts were meanwhile often neglected at the expense of those in large cities and there was a general lack of funds for basic maintenance and repair “which are often desperately needed”.
The LCJ vowed to continue to press for funding to tackle the maintenance problems that he said must be addressed to bring court buildings back into a decent condition. “I am raising this with the government at every opportunity.”
Lord Burnett noted how the modernisation of the courts had continued during the year with an expansion in the availability of digitised access. “The reform or modernisation programme involves much which is designed to make good decades of underinvestment and bring our systems and processes into the 21st Century. I am grateful to government for its continued financial support for this reform, which is vital.”
The LCJ highlighted the advisory group he had set up on artificial intelligence (AI), which will consider the opportunities provided by AI to support the work of judges and the functions of the courts.
“The group’s first task has been to gather information on the subject, but their discussions have already turned to judicial training and the use of AI in judicial decision making,” he said. “My purpose in establishing the expert group was to ensure that our thinking proceeds in parallel with technological advances rather than being taken by surprise in the future.”
Lord Burnett concluded: “This has not been an easy year and the future is replete with financial and other uncertainty. The judiciary and all those who work in the courts will continue to rise to meet the challenges we face.”