New Bar Council chair calls for “urgent” investment in criminal and family justice systems

updated on 17 January 2024

Reading time: two minutes

Sam Townend KC, the new chair of the Bar Council, has called the “need for significant investment” in the criminal and family justice systems “urgent”.

On Tuesday 9 January, Townend KC delivered his inaugural speech at Lincoln’s Inn in which he set out the following two key priorities for the year ahead:

  • securing more resources for the justice system; and
  • supporting the profession to become more resilient and sustainable.

On the first, Townend explained that “the criminal and family justice systems are at the point of structural failure”.

The outstanding caseload at the Crown Court now stands at 66,547, which is the biggest it’s been, and the average duration between receipt and disposal is now 290 days. Meanwhile, more than one-in-six trials are ineffective; the lack of barrister availability has been cited as one of the major reasons for this. Plus, the number of junior barristers choosing to work in this area has shown no signs of improvement.

Townend said: “The present financial settlement for the criminal justice system is like being asked to make two loaves of bread but having the ingredients for less than one. Publicly funded lawyers are good, but they are not miracle workers. More, much more, is required for the courts system, for the [Crown Prosecution Service], and in criminal legal aid to halt the worsening position and to seek to return, at least, to the position pre-covid.”

When considering the family justice system, Townend added: “The problem in family matters is a structural one... It is hard to resist the conclusion that what we are witnessing is a chronic decline in the effectiveness of the family justice system following the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which extinguished the availability of legal aid for most family law litigants who previously qualified.”

During his inaugural speech, the new chair also urged politicians to commit to investing in the justice system and called it “utterly disappointing that neither [of the main political parties] has yet committed itself to applying the resources needed and yet each keeps identifying more new offences and proposing greater demands on the criminal justice system”.

Townend also addressed action required following the Race at the Bar Report 2021, including “investigating the 17% earnings gap between men and women at 0-3 years’ call, and setting up the review on bullying, harassment and discrimination at the Bar”.