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Courts: Three-tier Covid Levels

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

What assessment he has made of the effect of the Government’s three-tier local covid-19 alert levels on the operation of the courts. (908310)

We have made a very careful assessment of the safety of all our court buildings. I am pleased to say that courts across the country are opening and operating regardless of the tier they may have been in previously and regardless of the altered circumstances that are commencing on Thursday. The courts are open, they are operating, and justice is being done.

In firebreak Wales, the justice system has had to operate under really difficult circumstances lately, and I pay credit to those who have worked so hard to adapt. However, figures shared with me by the chief constable in Gwent point to significant delays in first hearings and a 57% increase in witnesses being supported locally. To help deal with this, will the Government prioritise hearings for the most serious crimes before they get lost in another backlog?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s thanks to HMCTS staff and the judiciary and magistrates who have been keeping our courts running in what have been difficult circumstances. The cases that are prioritised are decided by the judges, who take responsibility for listing. However, cases such as domestic violence protection orders, which are often very urgent, are certainly being prioritised, and the most serious cases, particularly where there are vulnerable victims—we have heard about rape cases already this morning—are being listed at the earliest possible opportunity.

As the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), said, in the magistrates court we are now disposing of more cases than are being received. That has been the case since the end of July, so the outstanding caseload is coming down. As for Crown court jury trials, we now have more Crown court courtrooms for jury trials open and operating than was the case before the pandemic, so we are expecting similarly encouraging progress to start feeding through with regard to those trials as well.

In recent times we have seen outbreaks of covid in different courts around the country, despite the claims and answers to my parliamentary questions that everything possible is being done to keep them safe. The Government have been found out and hit with fines by the Health and Safety Executive for what can only be described as a catalogue of failures at Westminster magistrates court, including risk assessment found not to be suitable and sufficient. Then there were issues with social distancing, staff training and management arrangements. Can the Minister put his hand on his heart and honestly say that other courts would not fail the HSE test, and will he agree that it is now time to work with staff representatives to put things right, and carry out the national risk assessment demanded today by the Criminal Bar Association?

A huge amount of work has happened over the past six months to risk-assess different courts, working with Public Health England and Public Health Wales, and talking to union representatives as well. That is how we have got almost every court in the country now up and running in a socially distanced way. For example, we have installed perspex screens to make sure that jurors are separated from one another, and we are making sure that there are jury retiring rooms where jurors can space out. There is extremely frequent cleaning happening throughout every courtroom. What is important is that justice is done, justice is delivered, and it is done safely, and that is precisely what is now happening.