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Covid-19: Virtual Hearings

Volume 676: debated on Thursday 4 June 2020

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.