Justice Week, which starts today, helps to increase public understanding of the rule of law and justice. In a normal year, during Justice Week I might be speaking at events promoting young people’s understanding of the justice system or raising awareness of the importance of the rule of law. This year is obviously very different, but the aims and ambitions of Justice Week remain the same and I am grateful to organisers for arranging this event despite the current difficulties. As we look to emerge from lockdown in the coming months, ensuring that the public has a strong understanding of the law, their rights and their responsibilities will be particularly important and I know will be a priority for many in the justice system.
Covid-19 has disrupted our lives like no other event in recent history, and its effect on the justice system has been particularly severe. I have heard directly from my Pro Bono and Public Legal Education Committees how the pandemic has impacted not only on the types of legal problems people have been having but also on frontline practitioners’ delivery of legal assistance. I have been impressed by the agility of the sector in their move to virtual working to ensure that the public continues to receive the help they need.
As part of my responsibility as a Law Officer to superintend the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), I have followed the impact on criminal cases particularly closely. At the outset of the pandemic, it immediately became more difficult to progress criminal cases as hearings and trials were delayed in order to preserve public health. While public health must continue to be our priority, this has presented significant and unique challenges for the criminal justice system to tackle.
The criminal justice response to the pandemic has been a truly collaborative effort. At the beginning of lockdown in March 2020, the CPS switched at pace to working remotely, and as a result their out-of-court activity was relatively unaffected. They also worked with the police in order to introduce an interim charging protocol to prioritise the most important cases for progression through the criminal justice system, including the prioritisation of high harm cases and those with vulnerable victims.
I have been proud to read in justice inspectorate reports of the swift, pragmatic approach taken by not only the CPS, but of all criminal justice agencies – this helped to ensure that cases continued to progress and that staff wellbeing was also considered. However, I am also conscious that the impact of the pandemic has been profound and reaches far wider than the criminal justice system. While this perhaps is an opportunity for us to ensure we are even more resilient, the unique challenge here should not be underestimated. I am grateful for the hard work of all frontline workers across the whole of the justice system who have ensured our courts continued to run throughout the pandemic, and also would like to extend my thanks to the public for bearing with us.
This Justice Week, therefore, I would like to acknowledge the unwavering commitment of all involved in the justice system – be it members of operational agencies, lawyers, or volunteers – in ensuring that the law continues to be upheld and justice continues to be delivered even in these most difficult times. This is also a time when it is more important than ever for the public to have a greater understanding of what their rights and responsibilities are, and I would encourage everyone to engage with Justice Week to help to achieve this.
Rt Hon Michael Ellis QC MP, Solicitor General