Successive cuts to the justice system and “dilapidated” court buildings have undermined morale amongst the judiciary, the Lord Chief Justice told MPs on Tuesday.
In his evidence to the justice select committee, Lord Burnett said he was concerned by the mood across the judiciary in the wake of the “long history of underfunding” of the court system and cuts to remuneration. He added that the courts were currently having problems recruiting High Court judges.
The Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for the court system, is one of the government departments hardest hit by austerity measures. Since 2010 its budget has been cut by 40 per cent, and a further £300m is set to be lost in cash terms from April 2019.
The cuts have resulted in a sharp reduction in the provision of legal aid and a jump in the number of people representing themselves because they cannot afford lawyers, particularly in the family courts, which has placed an additional strain on judges.
“We are all conscious of the way in which money has been sucked out of the system,” Lord Burnett told MPs. “The MoJ — unprotected generally — has had a very substantial cut over the last few years and that has fed through into all the spheres of activity for which it is responsible.”
He singled out the poor state of many court buildings, which have leaking roofs, broken lifts or faulty heating systems and told MPs that “a very substantial amount of money needs to be spent” with “proper investment rather than a sticking plaster”.
“Sorting out the [court] estate would be one of those things which would make a big difference to the way judges feel,” he told the committee.
MPs heard that a 2016 Judicial Attitudes survey revealed only 2 per cent of judges who responded felt valued by the government.
Lord Burnett said he was “very struck” by the result and saw improving morale as one of his primary tasks. He added that he had spent his first year as Lord Chief Justice improving welfare support for judges and speaking to hundreds of his colleagues around the country.
“The reasons why the judiciary don’t have a great deal of faith in the proposition that government values them flows from a long history of events, particularly over the last six or seven years . . . the [court] estate and so forth but also undoubtedly the whole question of remuneration,” he said.
He told MPs that workload had increased and “the reality is our judges are working harder” and “this flows into the morale questions I touched on at the outset”.
The government offered judges a 2 per cent pay increase in 2018-19 — their biggest pay rise in nearly 10 years. However, many younger judges were badly hit by changes to their judicial pension scheme three years ago, when new pension arrangements were adopted for all judges born after April 1957; older judges were allowed to stay in a more generous scheme.
The Ministry of Justice said on Tuesday that the government valued the work of the judiciary and that is why it had just given judges their highest annual pay rise in a decade.
“Since 2015-16 we have invested around £114m to improve our court buildings, and secured from the recent Budget a further £15m to spend this year on maintenance and security,” it added.