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Access to Justice

Volume 680: debated on Tuesday 22 September 2020

What assessment he has made of the effect of the backlog of cases in HM Courts and Tribunals Service on access to justice. (906344)

What assessment he has made of the effect of the backlog of cases in HM Courts and Tribunals Service on access to justice. (906349)

What assessment he has made of the effect of the backlog of cases in HM Courts and Tribunals Service on access to justice. (906371)

I am delighted to report to the House that the recovery of our court system following the coronavirus pandemic is very well under way. The magistrates court is recovering strongly. Disposals last week exceeded 21,000, which is more than the number of receipts, and therefore the outstanding caseload went down, as it has gone down for each of the past five weeks. In relation to the Crown court, the recovery of jury trials continues strongly, and last week over 100 were held.

The majority of court cases have been moved from Barnsley and are taking place in Sheffield, increasing the likelihood of losing witnesses and, in some cases, victims. Prosecutions are already at record lows thanks to this Government’s record on law and order. Does the Minister accept that drastic measures need to be taken to reduce the backlog of cases and increase access to justice?

Drastic measures are being taken. We have recently invested £153 million to improve court buildings. We have just invested, in the past few weeks, an extra £80 million to support criminal courts, including the recruitment of 1,600 extra HMCTS staff. In addition to that, we have opened 10 emergency Nightingale courts with 16 courtrooms, and a further eight such Nightingale courts with 13 courtrooms will be opened in the course of September and October. The steps that that hon. Lady is calling for have been and are being taken.

From next week, the maximum period that someone can spend in pre-trial custody for Crown court cases will be increased to 238 days. I am particularly concerned that this includes children, as well as adults, on remand. At the moment in the prison estate, there is a higher proportion of children on remand among children in custody than there has been for a decade. What can we do to make sure that juveniles, in particular, get a speedy hearing and do not spend so much time in custody when they may very well be innocent?

The hon. Lady is quite right to draw attention to custody time limits. Of course we want to get cases heard as quickly as possible because people on remand may well be found not guilty subsequently. I do agree with her sentiments about children. I know that when judges look at listing cases, they are very mindful of that. By the end of October, we will have 250 Crown court jury trial rooms operating, which will enable us to really get through these cases as quickly as we possibly can.

Shopworkers have faced rising violence in recent years, and yet too often the perpetrators are not being brought to justice, partly, at the moment, because of lengthy backlogs in court hearings. Industry experts, business and trade unions are all calling for greater legal protection for shopworkers and for more investment in the court system. When are Ministers going to listen?

Ministers have listened. I have already explained that we have just announced an extra £80 million to support court recovery, on top of the £153 million to improve the court estate just a short time ago. As regards sentencing, the hon. Member will, I am sure, welcome the sentencing White Paper published last week, which imposes tougher penalties on serious offenders and keeps them in prison for longer. He mentions outstanding caseloads. I would remind him that the outstanding caseload in the Crown court, even with coronavirus, is lower today than it was in 2010, so we have managed to run the court system more effectively with coronavirus than the last Labour Government did without it.

The Minister outlines a different picture from that outlined by the Bar Council, which I met last week. It told me that covid-compliant courts throughout the country are running under capacity. Even after yesterday’s announcement, only a handful of the promised 200 Nightingale courts are in place. Magistrate numbers have halved since 2012, and there is a huge shortage of judges. Court listings are in chaos, with trial dates being set way into 2022. To top it all off, HMCTS is the only Government agency for which there is still no covid risk-assessment template agreed with PCS. The Lord Chancellor said he was looking forward to the spending review with relish; I sincerely hope that means that proper funding is on the way. When can we expect this mess to be sorted out and the buckling court system fixed, so that it can deliver for those it serves and employs?

I have already pointed out that the Crown court case load is lower today than it was in 2010 under the Labour Government. I have also pointed out that the magistrates courts, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, are disposing of more cases now than they are receiving: the backlog, or the case load, is going down and has been for each and every one of the past five weeks. The hon. Gentleman mentions custody and the time until hearings; in August, 84% of Crown court cases for which the defendant was in custody were listed for trial before February next year. We are working at pace and investing at pace. The recovery of our criminal justice system after this coronavirus epidemic is well and truly under way.