Skip to main content

Attorney General

Volume 676: debated on Thursday 4 June 2020

The Attorney General was asked—

Covid-19: Emergency Worker Assault Cases

1. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the handling by the CPS of emergency workers' assault cases during the covid-19 outbreak. (902939)

6. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the handling by the CPS of emergency workers' assault cases during the covid-19 outbreak. (902947)

A disappointing feature of this pandemic is the number of assaults on emergency workers, but I am reassured by the robust approach that the Crown Prosecution Service has taken. During the first month of lockdown, the CPS prosecuted more than 300 cases of assaults against emergency workers. It is clear that, when an individual threatens to infect an emergency worker by deliberately coughing or spitting, it will be treated extremely seriously by prosecutors.

The scenes experienced here in London yesterday show us at first hand the total disregard that some people have for our emergency workers, not least by flouting the social distancing rules and showing a total disregard of the safety of our frontline officers. What is just as disturbing is that one of our own colleagues allegedly decided to disregard social distancing yesterday and put all the House staff at risk, not to mention his own colleagues. Can my right hon. Friend say what changes have been made to our CPS arrangements for charging offences against emergency workers?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know people out there are feeling pain and anger. They must know that their lives matter—all lives matter—but violence and aggression are not the way forward. We are living through an unprecedented pandemic. The police are doing a heroic job in difficult circumstances and I urge people to follow the social distancing guidelines so that lives are saved. The Crown Prosecution Service issued an interim charging protocol earlier this year, which made it clear that covid-related offences are to be prioritised with an immediate charging decision, and I am glad that we have seen some robust approaches to such offences.

My constituents are extremely concerned about the increase in instances of assault against emergency workers and, after last night’s disturbing scenes outside this building, it is no wonder why. Does the Minister agree that an effective method of tackling these crimes once the individual has served their custodial sentence would be restorative justice, whereby the CPS works locally with the police to ensure they use restorative justice? For minor crimes that do not carry a custodial sentence, out of court disposals could be used.

My hon. Friend is right that those scenes of people attacking our heroic police officers were frankly sickening. It is obviously a matter for operationally independent police forces to use their flexibility and discretion as they see fit. My hon. Friend is right that out of court disposals can allow police to deal with low-level offending and first-time offending swiftly and efficiently. Whether that would be appropriate in those cases, I am not so sure personally: assaults on emergency workers are particularly callous. They are heroic men and women who are sacrificing their own health and safety in the service of others. It will always depend on the individual facts of the case and will always be a decision ultimately for the independent police force.

Can the Attorney General confirm that in assault cases, as in all other covid-related offences, the law should apply equally to all, and that as superintendent of the CPS by tweeting her support for Dominic Cummings, she undermined the impartiality of her role and the rule of law?

It is plain for any reasonable observer to see that there was no question whatever of my having provided any public legal view on the matter to which the hon. Lady refers. To suggest that that was somehow a legal opinion is simply absurd. She should know that I have no role whatever to play in the day-to-day decisions on individual cases. I respect and have full confidence in the operational independence of the CPS and the police, and I would gently encourage her to share my support and share my confidence in them.

This is the first time I have had the chance in the Chamber to welcome the Attorney General to her post. I hope that she will take up the invitation to appear before the Justice Committee before the summer recess.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has rightly detailed to the Committee the way that charging protocols and priorities work, but there has been concern that when we drop below the serious cases of assaults on emergency workers, covid-related charges were made by the police in other cases without reference to the CPS at the initial point of charge, and people were charged under the wrong section or when the evidential test was not made. Will she ensure that CPS advice is made available to the police for all charging decisions for all covid-related cases under the regulations or otherwise, to ensure that we do not get a repetition of that unfortunate state of affairs?

My hon. Friend makes me an invitation I simply cannot refuse, and I look forward to appearing before his Committee in due course. He will know that the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the associated regulations were brand new pieces of legislation introduced at pace and at a challenging time. The CPS has committed to reviewing all of its prosecutions brought under that legislation to ensure that the new laws are being applied correctly and appropriately in all cases. It has carried out a review and in a relatively small number of cases there was some confusion. The police and CPS have committed to instilling new guidance to ensure that mistakes do not get made again.

Transport workers also provide essential services and on 22 March, while on duty at Victoria station, Belly Mujinga was spat at by a man who said that he was infected with covid-19. Eleven days later, she was dead from coronavirus. British Transport police have decided not to refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecution—not even for common assault—so can the Attorney General demand the investigation be reopened and demand swift action, so that there can be justice for Belly Mujinga’s family?

This was a tragic incident and it was appalling, frankly, that Belly Mujinga was abused for doing her job at Victoria station. My thoughts are with her friends and her family. British Transport police did conduct an investigation following reports that a man claiming to have covid-19 coughed and spat at Ms Mujinga and a colleague. Their investigation found no evidence that an offence had occurred of that type.

Covid-19: Virtual Hearings

2. What assessment she has made of the ability of the CPS to participate successfully in virtual hearings during the covid-19 outbreak. (902941)

5. What assessment she has made of the ability of the CPS to participate successfully in virtual hearings during the covid-19 outbreak. (902945)

7. What assessment she has made of the ability of the CPS to participate successfully in virtual hearings during the covid-19 outbreak. (902949)

8. What assessment she has made of the ability of the CPS to participate successfully in virtual hearings during the covid-19 outbreak. (902950)

Prior to the covid-19 outbreak, CPS lawyers had participated in only a handful of audio and video hearings. I am now pleased to say that since 2 April, CPS prosecutors have appeared in over 4,000 virtual hearings across magistrates and Crown courts.

I am grateful for the response from my right hon. and learned Friend and I know that he will share my commitment to ensuring that all members of society can have equal access to justice and virtual hearings. In that regard, what steps is he taking to ensure that victims with hearing impairments are able to participate in remote hearings?

I thank my hon. Friend for that very important question. The CPS is working closely with the Courts and Tribunals Service and interpreters to ensure that victims, witnesses and defendants with hearing impairments of any sort can properly participate in virtual proceedings. It is important, and virtual hearings with hearing-impaired defendants have already taken place effectively. We will continue to monitor the situation.

What learning can the justice system take from this period and will virtual hearings continue in future?

The CPS will and needs to engage in evaluation exercises on this subject with partners as part of its future working programme to assess the impact of video hearings. There is a lot to learn and we can identify benefits and learn lessons. Where there are advantages for all court users going forward, we would want to see those in place.

Justice delayed is often justice denied. What discussions has my right hon. and learned Friend had with the Lord Chancellor in order to deal with the backlog of cases in the system?

My hon. Friend is right to ask about the backlog and I am concerned about it. It is inevitable that there will be a backlog. Almost everything has been disrupted by this awful pandemic and the courts are no exception, but work is ongoing with the CPS, cross-Government partners and stakeholders to contribute to planning on recovery and clearing the backlog. I am pleased to say that the CPS East Midlands—his region—has been working closely with the judiciary, the courts service and other key partners to get the Crown court in his area up and running as soon as possible. We need to focus on dealing with the backlog and I can assure the House and him that every effort will be made to do that.

One of the challenges of moving virtually is that it can act as a barrier to certain groups, and I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would agree that justice needs to be fair, open and available to all. What measures are in place to support people with vulnerabilities—such as people living with disabilities and people with health and mental health issues—in navigating the criminal justice system?

Vulnerable witnesses are entitled to a range of special measures already, which are being utilised and are still in operation during this outbreak, including screens to prevent the defendant from seeing a witness, live links, remote links, giving evidence in private, the prerecording of evidence and the removal of wigs and gowns. Measures are in place and are still in operation to make it easier for vulnerable witnesses and defendants, but I accept that there are challenges.

Whether proceedings are virtual or otherwise, the Crown Prosecution Service must discharge its functions without fear or favour, and so must the Law Officers, given their responsibility for oversight of the CPS. Does the Solicitor General agree therefore that the Law Officers should in future refrain from joining in the sort of orchestrated political tweeting we saw about Mr Cummings’s cross-country travels, given that such tweets may have the potential to prejudice any subsequent police investigation or prosecution?

I do not agree with the premise of the hon. and learned Lady’s question. The fact of the matter is that she is seeking herself to politicise the situation. This is not a partisan issue; we all recognise, respect and cherish the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service, and that is a long tradition in this country.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on her first physical appearance at the Dispatch Box as our shadow Attorney General?

There were 394 assaults on police officers in just the Thames Valley and Kent police force areas between March and April—more than the total number of prosecutions nationally. Given that assaults across the country must run into thousands, how is the CPS, bereft of resources, going to prosecute all those cases, virtual or otherwise?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I am pleased to say that the CPS is not bereft of resources. In fact, £85 million was sent to the CPS before this crisis broke out, which was 100% of its request for funds. Assaults against police officers and all emergency workers are taken extremely seriously by the courts. They are given priority by the Crown Prosecution Service, and we are dealing with those matters. The system is dealing with those matters robustly, and I think the evidence will show that.

The Solicitor General has just said that he realises that there are concerns about virtual hearings. Can he be a bit clearer about what steps the Government are now taking to ensure that vulnerable witnesses and vulnerable defendants in particular are properly protected during this period? Beyond accepting that there is an issue, what is being done to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done in virtual proceedings?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that point, which applies, as she says, to vulnerable defendants as well as witnesses—to all participants in these proceedings. Each individual court—each tribunal—is responsible for ensuring the best possible course of action in each individual case. A virtual hearing will not be appropriate in every case. Where there are particularly vulnerable persons involved, perhaps a virtual hearing will not be appropriate, but we do not micromanage that. We ask each individual judge to have that in mind when making decisions about virtual hearings, but where they take place, we want and expect them to do so in the confines of a situation where everyone feels comfortable and able to perform the functions required of them.

The CPS has done sterling work to ensure that offenders can still be brought to justice in the current crisis, but can my right hon. and learned Friend give me more details about how it has ensured that the best interests of victims, many of whom may never have experienced the courtroom system before, are being served?

Sometimes alternative mechanisms are in place. For example, remote hearings can take place using more than one courtroom, and it is sometimes possible for hearings to take place via technology from the home of various individuals. However, each individual circumstance will have to be looked at in assessing each individual, appropriate measure in each case. Caution is being exercised, but 4,000 virtual hearings have already taken place in the magistrates and Crown courts, and we expect to see more of them.

Covid-19: Government Support for Law Firms

4. Legal aid practitioners play a key role in access to justice. What consideration have the Government given to hard-pressed legal aid lawyers who, for example, need more flexibility with their billing or business rate relief to keep going, so that when cases reopen in courts, they can pick that up? (902944)

The hon. Lady asks an important question about support for law firms during the outbreak, and the CPS has made changes to its systems for paying fees to advocates to help support them during this difficult time. I joined a virtual meeting of the Bar Council, and the Bar is conscious of and content with the work that the Government have done—of course, there is always more that can be done—to relieve financial pressure. I see, and we are grateful for the fact, that the Inns of Court have been supporting junior barristers financially with ongoing funds. The Ministry of Justice is working closely with legal practitioners to understand the impact of covid-19, and streamlining the process for financial payments.

One of the biggest problems we have in bringing prosecutions against those who assault our emergency services is a lack of evidence. Could the Solicitor General set out what steps are being taken to make sure that the CPS has access to such evidence, including making sure that our emergency services have better access to body cameras?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, and we will certainly take on board what he says. Body cameras are of course an increasingly used piece of evidence. This does, in effect, often add a workload burden on the court system because there is so much video evidence—so much more virtual evidence—now coming into play. However, the Crown Prosecution Service has seen a dramatic increase in its funding from Her Majesty’s Government, and we will be making sure that payment for members of the legal profession is expedited where we can do so.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed inequalities facing the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, and the legal sector has proved no exception: 55% of BAME barristers earn more than half of their income from legal aid, and 84% cannot survive a year without support. What urgent action will the Solicitor General take to reverse the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and to restore funds to legal aid?

We are supporting the legal aid system, as we always have done. The reality is that we are expediting outstanding fee schemes where payments need to be made more quickly than normal; we have reduced the stage lengths before payments are made in the cases that are ongoing; and we have concluded main hearings and ongoing cases and made payment before hearings have been concluded. A multiple series of measures is being made to assist everyone at the Bar and, in fact, in all branches of the legal profession, including payments of up-front fixed fees of £500 for covid-19 matters. Every measure is being taken to support the legal profession, but I accept that there are challenges, as there are in many professions during this crisis.

Order. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for five minutes.

Sitting suspended.