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Attorney General

Volume 678: debated on Thursday 9 July 2020

The Attorney General was asked—

Crown Prosecution Service: Case Backlog

1. What discussions she has had with the CPS on its role in reducing the backlog of cases waiting to come before the courts. (904519)

I share the concern about the growing backlog in the courts. Covid has presented an unprecedented challenge for our justice system, and the UK is a global leader when it comes to the Crown courts. Jury trials restarted in May. Digital tools have been harnessed in more than 10,000 cases, and all courts will reopen by mid-July. I am proud that prosecutors have continued to fulfil their responsibilities despite the pandemic, both remotely and physically, and the CPS has been actively involved in cross-government discussions to continue progressing work through the courts.

I join the Attorney General in commending the work of CPS staff and many others, including jurors, to keep our justice system running during the pandemic. Will she assure the House that measures taken to help reduce the backlog will not include judge-only-led trials?

The Lord Chancellor and I discuss a range of criminal justice issues on a regular basis. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Ministry of Justice is leading the court recovery plan, which it published last week. That plan includes a suite of measures, both legislative and non-legislative. The point is that nothing is decided, but I can reassure him that I am deeply committed to the right to jury trial.

I think that all members of the Select Committee on Justice would welcome that last comment about the importance of jury trials, as I do. On the court recovery plan, the Lord Chancellor told the Justice Committee that he would make all resource that was necessary available to seek to clear the backlog, including the Nightingale courts, which we have heard about, and sitting courts to maximum capacity. Will the Attorney General ensure that the CPS has the resources, in terms of not only money, but personnel—in-house lawyers, solicitor advocates and instructing independent members of the Bar, when necessary—to make sure that a competent qualified prosecutor is always available to prosecute cases wherever they are needed, to make sure that this backlog is dealt with?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The CPS is not immune to the impact of the backlog. I am pleased that throughout this pandemic it has coped remarkably well, despite the challenges. The recent inspectorate report published at the end of last month sets out in a lot of detail how well the CPS has responded to the difficulties. It is currently receiving 1.8 cases for every one that can be completed in the court. I should note that it has also successfully maintained its recruitment plans despite the pandemic, and we now have more than 300 new prosecutors within the CPS.

The recent HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate report found that it could take 10 years to clear the criminal case backlog, with 41,000 outstanding cases, in a criminal justice system on its knees. While Labour has been calling for Nightingale and covid-safe courts for the past four months, the Government have been discussing scrapping jury trials. So can the Attorney General confirm today when the Nightingale courts will be up and running, and how many victims of sexual violence are still waiting for their case to get to court?

I am glad that the hon. Lady has mentioned the recent inspectorate report, which I think gives a strong commendation to the CPS for its response to this pandemic. In comparative terms, there is a strong vote of confidence in the CPS’s resilience, digital capability and planning for difficulties such as these. She is right to mention the court recovery plan. As I have mentioned, the Lord Chancellor has published a detailed plan. Many measures are under consideration. There is a strong commitment to the right to jury trial, but no decisions have been made yet.

Contempt of Court: Media Reporting

What steps she is taking to prevent conventional and social media reporting which may lead to contempt of court; and if she will make a statement. (904525)

Reporting by the press or on social media may sometimes present a risk of prejudice to criminal proceedings. It is important to protect due process and the right to a fair trial. In my role as guardian of the public interest, I can and have issued media advisory notices. This is important in order to inform responsible reporting to avoid prejudice to ongoing criminal proceedings.

Does the Solicitor General agree that on the whole the press does act responsibly and is swift to act in relation to material that may be prejudicial to court proceedings?

My hon. Friend is right, and it is right to acknowledge that the press is on the whole very responsible in its reporting of court proceedings, which is why issuing a media advisory notice is an exceptional course of action. In the past 12 months, I have only done that twice. However, it remains an important power, which will be used if necessary.

Journalists get training, but the average person does not know about contempt of court and we get contempt of court through social media, so what can the Solicitor General’s Department do to try to educate people when they might be doing just that inadvertently?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. That is quite right and he makes an important point about social media and the risk of contempt of court. My office has prepared and promoted materials available online to inform the general public, including slides and web pages, and I entirely agree that an emphasis on education is important to ensure that members of the public do not inadvertently publish prejudicial material online, because doing so can have serious consequences.

Crown Prosecution Service: Covid-19

First, I thank the CPS for its hard work during this difficult time. It has had to adapt to significant changes to its normal working practices, and despite the challenges has maintained a high quality of service within our criminal justice system and for victims. The inspectorate report published on 30 June sets out an analysis of its response to the pandemic. It commends the organisation’s digital capability, strategic planning and foresight in upgrading its capabilities, which meant that prosecutors were able to continue their vital work with minimum disruption. I was very pleased to virtually visit the CPS in the south-west, where I was able to see at first hand the impressive way in which it has transitioned to this new way of working.

What progress has the Crown Prosecution Service made in its recruitment campaigns during the covid-19 pandemic?

Last week, I chaired the CPS ministerial board, at which I was pleased to hear that the CPS’s recruitment programme has continued at pace throughout the pandemic, utilising digital tools, including video interviews. The CPS is recruiting 390 new staff as a result of the Government’s £85 million investment in it. Two hundred and twenty-five lawyers have started and a further 76 have been offered roles and will be starting in the near future. The most recent campaign closed on 17 June and resulted in a record number of applications—901.

Can the Attorney General tell the House how many members of the CPS were off sick due to covid-19?

The CPS has been monitoring the absence level of both lawyer and support staff throughout the pandemic. Where necessary, the CPS has virtually redeployed staff between different CPS areas to ensure that workloads were effectively managed. Court closures and the significant reduction in court sittings resulted in the release of some staff to undertake different tasks and work. This increased the amount of legal and administrative resources available for casework.

West Midlands police recorded over 4,000 cases of domestic violence in the first month of lockdown, yet only 3% of those cases have resulted in criminal charges. Between 2015 and 2019, despite domestic violence cases rising by 77%, charging fell by 18% and convictions by 20%. I ask the Attorney General again: how many victims of sexual violence are still waiting for their case to get to court, and what is she doing to ensure that domestic abuse does not go unpunished?

It is essential that perpetrators, victims and their families know and understand that the criminal justice system remains open and operational during the covid outbreak, and the CPS and I are working closely with colleagues across Government and the criminal justice system to ensure that those horrendous offences continue to be brought to justice. Priority must be given to the most serious cases to make sure that dangerous offenders are dealt with quickly. That is why the CPS has worked with police colleagues to introduce an interim charging protocol with clear guidance on its use. All non-custody domestic abuse cases were categorised as high priority and will be dealt with accordingly.

Belly Mujinga

When he expects the Crown Prosecution Service to complete its review of the British Transport police’s investigation of the alleged assault on Belly Mujinga at Victoria Station on 21 March 2020. (904522)

First, I want to say to the hon. Gentleman that this is a tragic case, and my thoughts remain with Belly Mujinga’s family and friends. On 5 June, British Transport police asked the Crown Prosecution Service to give its independent opinion on the available evidence and the prospect of it meeting the general principles of prosecution outlined in the code for Crown prosecutors. The Crown Prosecution Service has requested that the British Transport police pursue further lines of inquiry, and once that has been completed the CPS will be able to finalise the review.

I am grateful for that response, which is very helpful. I am sure the whole House agrees with the comments made by the Attorney General. This was a very high-profile case and everyone was rightly shocked when they heard the description of the alleged assault on Belly Mujinga. There was evidence from a colleague who was there at the time, so I was surprised that there was not sufficient evidence for a charge of assault, even if it was not possible to prove that it was the source of the covid-19 that eventually took her life. I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that answer, but can she give an assurance that she will continue to pursue the CPS and the British Transport police to bring this very important issue to a conclusion: whether it is charges or insufficient evidence, the people who are concerned about this really need to know the outcome?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to justice for Belly Mujinga and her family here. The matter is still being considered, and the Crown Prosecution Service has requested that the British Transport police obtain further information on further lines of inquiry. As the review is still ongoing, I am unable to provide further information at this stage, but I am sure there will be an announcement in due course.

Domestic Abuse Prosecutions

What estimate she has made of the additional resources required by the CPS to tackle the potential increase in domestic abuse prosecutions as a result of the covid-19 lockdown. (904523)

The Government take cases of domestic abuse extremely seriously. Despite the challenges generated by the covid-19 pandemic, the CPS has shown its determination to bring perpetrators to justice and provide victims with the greatest possible protection from repeat offending. I have to say those cases are among the highest priority for the Crown Prosecution Service and the highest priority being dealt with by the criminal justice system.

May I take this opportunity to commend the superb work of the Duchess of Cornwall on the issue of domestic abuse and her leadership in this area?

There has been an 83% increase in domestic abuse related crimes in Wales since 2015. The £85 million promised by Government to the CPS will go nowhere near the £225 million cuts made by the Government. What assurances can the Attorney General and Ministers give victims that the resourcing is sufficient for their cases to be dealt with effectively?

I thank the hon. Lady for that important question. The Government have recently announced a number of funding packages that are linked to domestic abuse post covid, including £16.6 million announced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to go to 75 local authority projects for delivery of support to victims of domestic abuse and their children; £3.1 million from the Home Office for specialist services for children who have been directly and indirectly affected; and £28 million for a package of support for survivors of domestic abuse and their children from a fund from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. A lot of money is, rightly, being directed to that area.

Burglary: Prosecution Rates

Burglary is a terrible crime that can have a long-lasting impact on victims. The CPS is committed to bringing robust prosecutions against offenders who commit burglary and ruin lives by doing so. The CPS will work with the police to ensure that the strongest possible evidence is put before the court. My right hon. Friend will be interested to know that the latest CPS data shows that of those prosecuted for burglary, 87.9% are convicted.

I thank the Solicitor General for his answer. Many of my constituents in Chipping Barnet are really worried about burglary. May I urge him to urge the police and the CPS to take this very seriously? Too often, they seem to know who the burglars are, but charges, arrests and prosecutions just do not seem to follow.

My right hon. Friend is quite right to focus on this point, and I know that she has a track record of supporting her constituents in this area. The CPS is committed to bringing charges in all cases where the code test is met. If there is the evidence, if it meets the requisite standards, people will be prosecuted for burglary.

Human Rights Act 1998

What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the effect on Scotland of the Government’s plans to update the Human Rights Act 1998. (904529)

I speak regularly with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor on many matters, including manifesto commitments. The Government committed to looking at the broader aspects of our constitution, including the balance between rights of individuals and effective government, and to updating the Human Rights Act. I can assure the hon. Member that any implications for the devolved Administrations will be closely monitored.

I am grateful to the Attorney General. Last month, the Lord Chancellor referred to an independent review of the Human Rights Act 1998. Can the Attorney General clarify whether that is different from the constitution, democracy and rights commission? What role will devolved institutions have in any such review, given how important the HRA is to the devolved settlements?

The Government are ensuring that the impact of any reforms on devolved jurisdictions is well considered. Any consideration by the panel of UK-wide judicial review issues will take into account the distinctive nature and context of each of the UK’s jurisdictions. Where appropriate, the panel will put forward bespoke options to take into account those differences, rather than proposing a one-size-fits-all approach.

I very much regret that the Attorney General does not seem to share my enthusiasm for the Human Rights Act. She knows as well as anyone that messing about with it endangers future justice and security co-operation, as well as trade, with the EU, so why do the Government not put our safety, security and prosperity first and ditch the Tory party’s Human Rights Act obsession?

I share, I hope, the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to law enforcement and criminal justice work throughout our nations, and I believe deeply in our co-operation on criminal justice matters with our neighbours. What I object to, however, is any submission to the European Court of Justice, and I am committed to our manifesto commitment to looking at the Human Rights Act and updating it.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

The scheme has had a number of recent successes. I am pleased to inform the House of two in particular. A recent case dealt with horrific offending concerning streaming child sexual abuse images online. The offender’s sentence was increased from one year and eight months’ imprisonment to four years’ imprisonment after I referred it. That was the first increase since that particular offence was brought within the scheme. In addition, I personally went to court to present the first controlling and coercive unduly lenient sentence. The sentence was increased from a two-year community order to three years’ immediate imprisonment.

Does the Solicitor General recognise the importance of the fact that the punishment must fit the crime, for public confidence and also for my Dudley constituents?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for his constituents in Dudley on this matter. Public confidence in sentencing is crucial, and I am delighted to say that the general public do have and should have confidence in sentencing. The reality is that a very tiny fraction—far less than 1%—has to be referred to the Court of Appeal for a review of sentence for undue leniency. In his area, he might be interested to know of a case where a sentence of two and a half years for possession of a sawn-off shotgun and other material was increased to five years when it was referred by me for a review.

Support for Law Firms: Covid-19

What discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effectiveness of Government support for law firms during the covid-19 outbreak. (904537)

The CPS has made changes to its system for paying fees to advocates to help support them during this difficult time, adjusted to ensure payment for work performed, even where a normal invoice trigger point has not been reached. The Ministry of Justice is also working closely with legal practitioners to understand the impact of covid-19 on them. The Legal Aid Agency has streamlined the process for interim payments and hardship payments, including lowering the threshold for when such claims can be made.

Before the pandemic, many law firms were already struggling because of a decade of cuts to legal aid. What is the Solicitor General doing to ensure we have a functioning and fair criminal justice system when the crisis is over?

Prosecuting advocates play an essential role in our criminal justice system, and the Government support them, as can be seen with the recent influx of money from the Treasury to the Crown Prosecution Service. On 30 March, the CPS announced measures enabling interim invoices to be raised. That is just one mechanism by which we are supporting criminal practitioners working on Crown Court cases. They are now able to claim hardship payments, for example, which have been expedited. Millions of pounds in extra funding is being provided for not-for-profit providers. We are supporting the legal community across the board in what I accept are very difficult times.

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 suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.