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Court Capacity

Volume 698: debated on Tuesday 29 June 2021

The pandemic has affected courts, like it has affected so many other areas of life. The Government have responded energetically and comprehensively, for example by opening 60 new Nightingale courtrooms, hiring an extra 1,600 Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service staff, injecting hundreds of millions of pounds extra into the system, and making sure that around 20,000 hearings a week can now be conducted online. These measures are designed to enable court recovery, and I can assure the House that these efforts will continue.

The Minister’s total failure to improve court waiting times is having a very real-world cost, no more so than for my 100-year-old constituent whose fraud case against a former carer amounts to more than a quarter of a million pounds. Despite initiating the case more than four years ago, that elderly woman is still waiting and is unlikely to see justice served in her lifetime. The Minister knows about that case, as I have written to his Department on multiple occasions, but still the delays persist. What exactly does he have to say to my constituent, along with the thousands of others like her who are once again being left behind by this Government and denied justice?

Listing of individual cases is a judicial function, and there are sometimes legal reasons why cases get put off. I must say that in Wales, actually, the court system is performing particularly well at the moment. The hon. Lady talks about delays. Of course, during the pandemic some delays have built up, but in the magistrates court, for example, about half of the backlog that accumulated due to covid, which peaked in about August last year, has already been removed. The outstanding case load in the magistrates court is currently dropping at a rate of around 2,000 a week. I also gently point out that the outstanding case load prior to the pandemic in the Crown court, at 39,000 cases, was considerably lower than the 47,000 cases in 2010.

The Crown court backlog has reached a new record high of nearly 60,000 cases. That is the result of a decade of Conservative cuts and court closures. Will the Government commit to continuing Nightingale courts until the backlog is cleared?

We are continuing Nightingale courtrooms. We are also saying to the judiciary, critically, that there will be no constraint on Crown court sitting days this current financial year; the judiciary can list as many cases as they are physically able to. On Crown court numbers, clearly, jury trials and pandemics do not mix very well, but thanks to the steps taken, we have seen the corner turned just recently—in the last few weeks. Crown court case numbers are beginning to edge down for the first time, and we are committed to making sure that continues.

I welcome the Minister’s last point, because the Director of Public Prosecutions told the Justice Committee two weeks ago that case loads in the Crown court are currently at 95% of physical capacity, making allowance for the Nightingale courts, but that the Crown Prosecution Service’s total case load has increased by some 53% since February 2020. Does the Minister agree that that must mean that, to keep the backlog reducing in a sustainable fashion, we must have long-term, continued investment in increased court capacity, but also in judges and recorders, in court staff available to hear and try cases, and in CPS staff to ensure that they are ready for trial on time?

The Chair of the Justice Committee is, as always, right in his analysis. We need to ensure that the capacity exists and, for the reason he mentioned, 1,600 extra staff have already been hired for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. He also mentioned Crown Prosecution Service capacity. I think its budget recently went up by about £80 million to enable 400 additional prosecutors to be hired.

In relation to judicial capacity, we will shortly bring forward measures to increase the mandatory retirement age for magistrates and judges from 70 to 75, which we hope will retain the most experienced judges who will be able to sit and hear these cases. In relation to physical courtroom capacity, we have clearly invested enormously in technology to enable remote hearings and, as I mentioned, about 20,000 a week are taking place. In addition to that, we have the 60 Nightingale courtrooms. When social distancing is relaxed—nothing has been confirmed, but we have a reasonable expectation that it will be in the near future—a reduction in those requirements will enable more courtrooms to be used safely than is the case today, which will also greatly assist court recovery.

The Minister has been keen to talk up the Government’s efforts to get court waiting lists down, but it is vital that efficiency does not come at the expense of effective and proper justice. I hope he is aware of the controversy surrounding the use of the single justice procedure in relation to the thousands of people prosecuted for coronavirus-related offences and the fact that hundreds—the bulk in their absence—may have been wrongly charged and convicted. Indeed, 37 people have been unlawfully prosecuted under schedule 22 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, which has never been activated in England. When that problem was highlighted by Big Brother Watch and The Guardian newspaper, the Ministry of Justice said that

“defendants can…have their conviction voided and reheard if necessary.”

Surely the Minister agrees that such incompetence adds to the burden of the courts, is more expensive, weakens justice and may well be unlawful. What is he going to do about it?

First, it is important to make clear that prosecution decisions are taken by the independent Crown Prosecution Service, not by the courts system. Secondly, when it comes to maintaining standards of justice, I think the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), the shadow Secretary of State, floated the idea of having smaller juries earlier in the pandemic. Of course, we have maintained juries at 12. However, where unusual measures such as remote hearings have had to be taken throughout the pandemic, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice has ensured that justice standards have been maintained. Judges have always had the proper discretion to direct proceedings in their courtrooms so that justice is not only properly done but fairly done.