The Government take tackling domestic abuse extremely seriously, as shown, of course, by the introduction of the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that justice is delivered in such cases. In fact, I personally successfully presented the first unduly lenient sentence case of its kind at the Court of Appeal last year on coercive and controlling behaviour. The CPS is working hard to deliver justice and protect the public, and has recently published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme to help narrow the disparity between the reporting of these offences and criminal justice outcomes.
About a fifth of crimes reported in lockdown have involved domestic abuse, and there is real concern that the number of specialist domestic violence courts seems to be reducing. Will the Minister commit to strengthen the system and increase the number of specialised courts, so that we can support the hard work of the police and support victims at trial?
That is a very good question. We are always looking at ways in which we can support those engaged in this important work. The Government have recently announced several funding packages linked to domestic abuse, including funding to deal with the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on domestic abuse. During the pandemic, the CPS has continued to prioritise domestic abuse cases. In addition to the interim charging protocol, a memorandum of understanding on the subject of domestic abuse was agreed in June across the whole criminal justice system. It supports multi-agency pre-hearing case progression for domestic abuse cases that are listed for trial.
Despite what the Minister says, domestic abuse prosecutions continue to plummet. They had already fallen off the cliff edge before the pandemic hit the justice system, with an annual decrease of some 22% in the year up to March 2020. Will he tell me what pre-emptive action is being taken now to stop this freefall and maintain the confidence of the victims of these deplorable crimes?
I hate to focus on this issue, but the reality is that of course all prosecutions have been affected by the pandemic. The whole courts system, as well as most other functioning systems in this country, are necessarily adversely affected by the pandemic. However, the hon. Gentleman has my assurance, and that of the Government, that domestic abuse cases are among the highest priority in the criminal justice system. On joint interim charging, for example, guidance issued by the police and the CPS immediately following the outbreak of covid-19 stated and confirmed that cases should be prioritised where the defendant is being held in custody, and that specifically included high-risk domestic abuse cases. So we are keeping our eye on this. These are extremely important cases and they must and should continue to be given the priority that they deserve.
I, too, offer my congratulations to the Attorney General on her forthcoming maternity leave.
As well as domestic violence prosecutions being down 19%, victims are left waiting for months for their cases to go to court and are increasingly being told to pursue civil cases instead. Despite the Solicitor General’s warm words, it is clear that the Government are letting victims down on every front. With the huge barriers facing victims of domestic abuse, will the Solicitor General join me today in backing the Bar Council’s call for non-means-tested legal aid to be made available to victims in the upcoming spending review?
Of course, I have to leave spending review issues to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of Exchequer, but the reality is that the CPS best practice domestic abuse framework seeks to address withdrawal rates by delivering a high-quality service to victims, and it encourages more timely court listings. As the hon. Lady knows, we cannot always guarantee immediate court listings, but the CPS does encourage more timely court listings for this type of case. The provision of holistic support for victims—including, where appropriate, the support of an independent domestic abuse adviser—is very important. Funding is going into this issue and it is being given priority. More can be done—the hon. Lady is right and in agreement with Government Members that this is an important area of priority—and we will continue to focus on the issue.