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Covid-19: Access to Justice

Volume 677: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2020

The covid-19 outbreak has raised real challenges for the justice system, and we have taken rapid action where we can with the help of practitioners and the judiciary, who have been fantastic, to overcome those challenges and maintain access for all. Some 159 courts remained open across all jurisdictions, and a further 116 were staffed. On 18 May, we were able to restart jury trials, and we will be scaling them up in the weeks ahead.

As the Secretary of State said earlier, it is estimated that more than 41,000 criminal cases in England and Wales are in the backlog, including three murders in Gwent. There is a real risk that victims of the most serious crimes, including domestic abuse, will withdraw. Will the Minister therefore meet with Gwent MPs virtually to discuss what the Department is doing in our area, as there is a real fear that justice delayed is justice denied?

I thank the hon. Lady for the very proper concern that she expresses. I or one of my fellow Ministers would be happy to have a meeting. Every effort is being made to increase capacity to the fullest extent possible, but on the specific issue she raised about keeping victims and witnesses engaged, we are very much alive to that. I spend a great deal of time speaking to victims’ services, which do a wonderful job, together with the police, of making sure that victims remain informed, engaged and involved.

The Law Society has highlighted how many legal aid providers are in danger of imminent collapse, because of the financial pressures of covid. They have had warm words from the Government, but no more. Will the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with the Treasury and when he last met it to discuss the plight of legal aid providers?

Legal aid is absolutely vital in a fair society. It is one of the vital bulwarks of our liberty, and we take extremely seriously the needs of legal aid providers. Steps have been taken to ensure that where there is money in the system—more than £400 million—that is more easily available for practitioners to draw down, so that they can be helped to weather the storm. That is of course over and above other schemes that apply to legal aid practitioners as to everyone else, whether that is the furlough scheme or the bounce-back loans scheme. Those measures are in place to keep these vital providers in business so that they can continue to do their important work.