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Court Backlog

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2021

The covid pandemic has had an enormous effect on public services, including the court system, but we have risen to that challenge, investing a total this year, as I said earlier, of an extra quarter of a billion pounds in court recovery. That has included installing 450 plexiglass screens in courtrooms to facilitate covid-safe hearings and installing the cloud video platform in 150 magistrates courts and 70 Crown courts to enable remote hearings, which last week delivered a record in excess of 20,000 remote hearings across all jurisdictions. We are not resting. There is more work to do and this Government will take whatever action is required to ensure justice is delivered.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and I welcome the establishment of the 40 Nightingale courtrooms and the rapid increase in the use of video technology, but may I reinforce a point and ask him to confirm the importance of prioritising urgent cases to protect the public during this extremely difficult time?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the prioritisation of urgent cases. Listing is a judicial function and is a matter for judges, but I know that judges do prioritise the most urgent cases. For example, right from the beginning of the pandemic, domestic violence protection orders were one of those matters that were most prioritised. I hope I can also reassure my hon. Friend by saying that for those most serious Crown court cases where the prisoner was remanded in custody, well over half that had their first hearing in November will have had their substantive trial by July this year.

The Minister will I hope be aware that in the year ending March 2020, an astonishing 99% of rapes reported to the police in England and Wales resulted in no legal proceedings against the alleged perpetrators, and even the 1% of victims whose cases do proceed to the courts have to wait years for justice. What concrete steps is the Secretary of State taking to speed up the process and to address this appalling situation?

The hon. Lady is right to draw the House’s attention to this very serious problem, which most certainly does need to be sorted out. Some steps have been taken already, such as the roll-out of section 28 video-recorded evidence to help the most vulnerable witnesses, where that would be of assistance. Changes have also been made to disclosure rules very recently, which often pose obstacles in these kinds of cases. In fact, only yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and the Lord Chancellor announced an additional £40 million to help victims, including victims of these terrible crimes, but it is fair to say that a great deal more needs to be done, as the hon. Lady rightly references. There is a cross-Government, cross-criminal justice system rape review currently being undertaken, led by the Minister for Crime and Policing. That will be reporting very shortly and will have further concrete actions in this very important area.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for those earlier answers. The additional funding that Suffolk constabulary has received for victims’ services is extremely welcome, as many victims of the most horrific violent and sexual offences are, along with their families, in urgent need of additional support at a time when the period between charging and the commencement of a trial can now be between a year and 18 months. That delay is causing great distress, so to reduce the backlog of cases, will my hon. Friend provide more court staff and a Nightingale court in Suffolk to increase capacity in Crown courts?

I can most certainly offer my hon. Friend an assurance about the additional staff. We are in the process of hiring an extra 1,600 HMCTS staff. As I mentioned to the Justice Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) earlier, we are also expecting a significant increase in Crown court sitting days in the next financial year. More money is being invested in the Crown Prosecution Service, which of course brings these prosecutions, with an extra £85 million a year to hire 400 more prosecutors. The purpose of all those measures is to speed up the system in the way that my hon. Friend has rightly just requested. I would be very happy to study proposals for a Nightingale court in East Anglia. Perhaps we could discuss that after this session to see what ideas he has.

My constituent owns a construction firm. He completed a significant project before the first lockdown, but his customer has not yet paid. He understands from his solicitor that it is impossible to submit a request for a winding-up order through the courts at present, even in cases where the temporary restrictions on them do not apply. If that is the case, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that businesses can request winding-up orders when required while covid restrictions are in place?

It is important that people to whom debts are owed can enforce those debts and get judgment; it is the foundation upon which commercial transactions are built. I am not sure that I entirely recognise the situation to which my hon. Friend refers. Perhaps we can correspond after today’s session, and I would be happy to look into the particulars of the case that she references and see whether I can assist in any way.

My constituent reported her case of historical sexual abuse four years ago. The trial is listed for mid-2022, but with court delays, there is no certainty. Meanwhile, this traumatised victim cannot access therapy, as it might jeopardise the conduct of the trial. She is seriously unwell. What equality impact assessment has the Minister undertaken on the impact of court delays on victims of sexual and domestic crime, and will he look to expedite those cases?

I recognise the considerations that the hon. Lady raises. I know that when judges make listing decisions, they carefully take into account the sort of considerations that she rightly outlined. Of course, many of the delays in bringing these cases predate coming to trial; they might be related to issues to do with disclosure or the time it takes to investigate and then assemble the case. We hope that many of those issues can be addressed via the rape review, in addition to the work that is being done on disclosure rules, and the extra money going into the CPS will help. As I said, we recognise that there is a problem in this area, which the rape review and the other measures aim to address, because delays do not serve the interests of justice; they cause distress for victims, as the hon. Lady rightly says. That is one of the reasons we have invested so much extra money in supporting victims, but I agree that delivering speedy justice in this area is critical.

From all the evidence in Yorkshire and the north-east from judges, retired judges and senior barristers, I get the feeling that there are serious problems. Is it not the case that the Government are using covid as a fig leaf for the fact that our justice system was in terminal crisis before covid, and we must have a renewal of our justice system and investment in it? When are we going to see the royal commission on criminal justice up and working?

I am afraid that I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the justice system prior to coronavirus. Waiting times in the magistrates court prior to coronavirus were about eight weeks, which is an entirely respectable figure. The outstanding case load in the Crown court prior to coronavirus—39,000—was quite low by historical standards and significantly lower than the 47,000 it was when Labour left office in 2010. Moreover, the HMCTS budget in 2020 was higher by some £200 million that it was in 2010. There is, of course, a great deal more that we need to do. A lot of money is being invested this year, and more money will be invested in the future. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is working at pace on the royal commission on criminal justice, and we are expecting announcements in due course.

It was revealed in a coroner’s court last week that in August 2019, an 18-year-old woman who was a victim of sexual assault was told that she would not get her day in court for 19 months. The day after, she lost her life to an overdose. The coroner said that the two events were linked. This was six months before covid landed on our shores. It is not covid that broke our system of justice—it is this Government who did it. Will the Minister offer an apology to that young woman’s family and to every single victim of assault and every single victim of crime in this country who is waiting month after month after month for justice?

I have already pointed out that our justice system prior to coronavirus was in good shape, with magistrates court waiting times, as I said in response to the last question, at about eight weeks and a Crown court outstanding case load that was low by historical standards, but we do recognise the distress that witnesses and victims in particular suffer. That is why, only yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), and the Lord Chancellor announced an additional £40 million to support victims—that is extra money on top of additional money already—because we recognise the importance of victims in this system. A rape review is under way to make sure that these cases are brought to court as quickly as they can be, because we do recognise that they are taking too long. However, that is not just a courts issue; it is to do with disclosure rules, putting a case together and properly investigating these cases. Of course, the extra 20,000 police officers will help. Victims are at the forefront of our mind, and we will do everything we can to look after and protect them.