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Backlog of Court Cases

Volume 695: debated on Tuesday 18 May 2021

Prior to coronavirus, outstanding case loads in the Crown court were low by historical standards. However, coronavirus has put huge strain on the court system, in common with so many other public services. The Government have taken decisive action, with 60 Nightingale courtrooms, a quarter of a billion pounds spent on improving the justice system, 290 safe jury trial rooms and 1,600 extra staff. It is thanks to those decisive measures that magistrates court case loads are now 60,000 cases lower than they were at the peak over the summer.

I thank the Minister for his answer and for his previous engagement on the issue of a Nightingale court in Kent. Will he provide an update on when he thinks the court will be established and up and running?

My hon. Friend has been a tireless advocate for a Nightingale court in Kent. My colleague Lord Wolfson is working very actively on that question and I strongly hope we will be in a position to make a positive announcement in the very near future.

The employment tribunal backlog stands at a staggering 51,000, which is 45% higher than pre-pandemic levels. The Minister will blame that on covid, but he knows the system was broken before, with cuts made by his Department. Now, as we see multiple employment claims shooting up and some employers using covid as a cover for fire and rehire or cutting people’s employment rights, we have a tribunal system that is unable to cope. Labour warned about this and called for a package of urgent measures. When will the Minister finally step up and take responsibility for the backlog of cases?

In common with so many other areas of the justice system employment tribunals were profoundly affected by coronavirus, but we have taken decisive action. The number of employment tribunal sitting days is being increased dramatically, and the tribunal is benefiting from the 1,600 extra staff hired across Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and from the enormous investment in technology, which is enabling across the court system, including the tribunal, 20,000 remote hearings a week. Those are the actions we are taking to address the issue the hon. Lady raises.

The Minister is being remarkably complacent, because he must know that much of the backlog was actually caused by massive cuts by the Conservative Government. That was a huge error, impacting not only on very serious criminal cases in the Crown court, but on dealing with the petty crime and antisocial behaviour that is blighting our communities. He also knows that cases are taking years to get to court, with the impact that that has on the availability or willingness of witnesses. When he will he stop putting out this complacent line and get a grip of the problem?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the situation prior to coronavirus. The outstanding case load in the Crown court prior to coronavirus was 39,000 cases—low by historical standards and substantially lower than the 47,000 cases left behind by the last Labour Government. Moreover, under this Government, crime, as reported by the crime survey, has dropped by 41%. There is no complacency. A quarter of a billion pounds has been spent, 1,600 extra staff have been hired and 23,000 extra police are being recruited. There is no complacency here.

I asked the House of Commons Library what was going on in the east midlands pre-pandemic. Interestingly, in Bosworth the number of court cases in the backlog has stayed the same. That is partly because there was an 11% rise in Leicester courts, but a 12% fall in Leamington Spa. Clearly, covid has had a massive impact and I pay tribute to the court staff working tirelessly to clear that, but overall there is a mixed picture. What is the Minister’s Department trying to do to tease out what is covid and what is pre-existing, and, most importantly, to share good practice to try to deal with all those cases?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his interest, of course, in his constituency and his region. There is a great deal we are doing across the country, including in the east midlands. I mentioned the investment of a quarter of a billion pounds. We are also saying that for Crown court cases there will be no constraint on the number of cases listed. We are encouraging the judiciary the length and breadth of the kingdom, including in the east midlands, to be forward-leaning in listing. We have, of course, already opened the Nightingale court in Nottingham and are planning to open a further Crown court in Loughborough in the late summer, which will accommodate large multi-handers—it will be a supercourt. I hope my hon. Friend will welcome that important step, which will benefit his region.

Even the Minister’s own MPs accept that there is a crisis in the court system. There are now a record 57,000 outstanding Crown court cases. Lawyers are concerned that they cannot safely see their clients in cells and facilities in many courts are inadequate for the same purpose. The temporary leases on many of the Nightingale courts will come to an end within weeks. Defendants are spending longer than ever in prison and on remand, and some are wrongly feeling pressured to plead guilty rather than face months and maybe years before their cases will be heard. Will the Minister confirm his plans for the future of Nightingale courts, put a stop to the other planned court closures and tell the House just how long is it going to take to clear this backlog?

I am rather perplexed to hear the shadow Minister talk about planned court closures. There are not any planned court closures and, in fact, as I have said, we have opened up 60 new Nightingale courtrooms and will be looking to continue those as long as they are needed. I already said, in the last answer, that we are planning to open up a new Nightingale court in a number of places in the country, including in Loughborough. The Lord Chancellor has been clear that the judiciary can list at will in the Crown court to encourage the recovery, which we are supporting with money—I have mentioned the quarter of a billion pounds several times already—remote hearings and extra staff. The pandemic has caused enormous difficulties for the court system, as it has for public services. Jury trials and pandemics do not mix very well. We have taken decisive action. That decisive action is delivering results.

Will the Minister look to fast-track rape cases by providing DNA testing hubs requiring immediate testing of the accused on request, like breath tests, and confirm that positive tests, alongside a dated audio recording from the victim’s mobile phone saying that they do not consent to sex, would be sufficient to enable immediate imprisonment through fast-track Nightingale courts to massively scale up the number of rapists taken off our streets and put behind bars? Will he meet me to discuss this?

The hon. Gentleman is raising an extremely important point. Some of the questions that he is raising, to do with DNA testing and disclosure, are being addressed in the rape review that is due to report very shortly. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing would be delighted to meet and discuss some of these—[Interruption.] He is leading this work and he would be delighted to discuss these points; he gave me that undertaking just a moment ago. We are looking to expedite and ease these matters through, for example, the wider use of section 28 pre-recorded evidence, so people can give their evidence more quickly. On prioritising hearing rape cases, the hon. Gentleman is raising a very important point. Listing is a matter for the judiciary, but I know that judges think very carefully about the kind of points that he made when they decide which cases to prioritise.