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Court Cases: Backlog

Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2020

What steps his Department is taking to reduce the backlog of court cases that has accumulated as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (909942)

Justice systems around the world have been profoundly affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but I am pleased that the court system in England and Wales has been among the world’s leaders in recovering from that pandemic. Magistrates court disposals are now exceeding receipts, and 260 Crown Court jury rooms are operating—more than we had before the pandemic. Substantial additional resources, both people and money, have been put into the system, to ensure that our recovery continues to be world-leading.

The Lowry theatre in Salford is being used as a nightingale court, which I think is a good idea and model because it brings income to a venue that has been hit hard by the crisis. However, it is one of only 16 courts that were up and running by the end of November, and the chief executive of the Courts Service has said that we need 200 to clear the backlog. What number does the Minister think we now need to clear the backlog?

As the hon. Gentleman says, 16 nightingale courts are up and running, and the Ministry of Justice has secured a total of just over £110 million in additional funding from the Treasury, to support not just those nightingale courts, but many others as well. We intend to open further nightingale courts in the future. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the use of the Lowry theatre—we all do—and as I said, up to 260 Crown Court jury rooms are now open and operational, which is more than we had before the pandemic.

The backlog for individual cases in employment tribunals has already passed the post-2008 financial crisis record, with 37,000 workers in the queue. Analysis by Citizens Advice suggests that if that continues to grow at the current rate, the number of outstanding claims could pass 500,000 by spring. When will the Minister take action at the scale necessary, and stop the Chancellor’s jobs crisis becoming a justice crisis, by targeting much needed support to employment tribunals?

As I said, we are putting a great deal of extra resources into the justice system, including employment tribunals, to ensure that we recover from coronavirus. There is £110 million in total extra this year, and a further 1,600 staff of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service across the entire system. The hon. Lady mentions employment tribunals, and I am pleased to report to the House that since the beginning of October, disposal rates in the employment tribunals have been running at 740 a week. That is higher than the level of disposals pre-pandemic, which was 718 a week. We hope and expect that that recovery will continue.

There has been a welcome focus from the Department on domestic violence and sexual assault cases, including the landmark recent Domestic Abuse Bill. We know that a delay in bringing those types of cases to court can lead to a significant increase in attrition rates, and therefore convictions. Will Ministers focus particularly on bringing those types of cases to court quickly, and will they meet me and the Kent police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott, to discuss what more we can do?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that important area, and it is certainly a matter that Ministers are mindful of and focused on. The judiciary decided early on in the pandemic to prioritise domestic violence protection orders, so that even when much of the court system had stopped functioning in the immediate aftermath of the first lockdown, DVPOs continued. As judges consider which cases to list, they are mindful of my hon. Friend’s point about protecting vulnerable witnesses and victims. In addition, we have committed £28 million extra to support domestic abuse services, and we have provided £800,000 to the finding legal options for women survivors project, which provides free legal support to victims—my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has been leading on that work. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the Kent police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott, who is doing a fantastic job for the people of Kent, and I look forward to that meeting happening in the near future.

The Lord Chancellor was keen to talk up his court successes in his statement on Thursday, yet the situation remains dire in many parts of his Department, according to answers to my written questions. The number of effective trials was down from 19,000 in 2010 to 12,000 last year, and that was before covid; expenditure on recorder sitting days has halved from £19 million to less than £10 million since 2018; and disposals in care proceedings within the legally required 26 weeks have collapsed to just 34%. This is about people’s lives, so will the Minister outline when victims, witnesses and families will get the court system they desperately need and justice will be properly served?

The shadow Minister makes reference to a reduction of trial numbers last year. Of course, that is because crime is significantly down since 2010, when Labour left office. If there are fewer crimes being committed, there will be fewer trials in consequence; that is a symptom of success. The outstanding case load in 2019 was in fact at a 10-year low.

As I have said already, we are fully committed to making sure that the justice system recovers from the pandemic. That is why we have more Crown court jury trial rooms open now than we did before the pandemic, we are consulting on having extended operating hours to allow more cases to be heard, we have put £110 million of extra money in, we have recruited 1,600 extra staff—[Interruption.] It is working, as evidenced by the fact that there are more magistrates court trials now than there were before the pandemic and disposals are exceeding receipts. We will continue this work and make sure that the recovery in this jurisdiction continues to lead the world.