Skip to main content

Crown Court Backlog

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021

5. What his timescale is for clearing the backlog of Crown court cases resulting from the covid-19 outbreak. (904092)

We are already seeing the results of our efforts to tackle the impact that the pandemic has had on our justice system, and the number of outstanding cases in magistrates courts has dropped by around 80,000 since its peak in July 2020. I am pleased to say that the spending review provides an extra £477 million for the criminal justice system, which will allow us to reduce Crown court backlogs caused by the pandemic from 60,000 today to an estimated 53,000 by March 2025.

The Government try to blame covid-19 for the backlog, but the Crown court backlog had already increased by 23% in the year leading up to the pandemic. Does the Minister regret the decision to slash sitting days in 2019?

I say to the hon. Lady with the greatest respect that it is quite extraordinary that anybody in this place should try to pretend that the pandemic has nothing to do with the backlog. If she visits a Crown court, she will see extraordinary measures having to be used to ensure that, with a jury present and potentially multiple defendants, a case can be disposed of while upholding the rules that we brought in for public health. It would be very welcome if the Opposition recognised that the best part of £500 million of investment to clear the backlog is a very significant step and a positive way forward.

Last week, the Justice Committee visited the Crown court in Manchester and met the recorder, His Honour Judge Dean QC, and the rest of the judiciary. We also met court staff and practitioners there. I hope my right hon. Friend will join me in paying tribute to the hard work that they are all doing to try to keep the show of the jury trial on the road in these exceptional circumstances. Does he agree that it is extremely difficult to deal with jury trials when social distancing is required, and that we have to be realistic about that? Will he also note that the magistrates courts are now, as he observed, dealing with cases in a timely fashion? Is it perhaps worth looking again at the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 in relation to the powers of magistrates, because a lot of lower-level offences could be disposed of in magistrates courts?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I also had the pleasure of visiting Manchester Crown court and saw the brand-new super court, put in place at a cost of £2.5 million to the Treasury to deal with multi-handed cases. I am pleased to say that today we have opened another in Loughborough. On the matter of magistrates, he will know that in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill that is before the House—in fact, we have just been in Bill Committee—we will increase the number of cases that are remitted from the Crown court to magistrates, saving 400 days in the Crown court to hear serious backlog cases such as rape and other indictable charges.

I will let you get the benefit of the applause, Mr Speaker.

On a recent trip out with officers from the Waterfoot police station in Rawtenstall, one of the challenges they talked about in getting cases to court is that the Crown Prosecution Service insists that full disclosure is done before charge. Will my hon. Friend go away and look at that? It is currently warranted officers doing that disclosure, when it could easily be a civilianised job. Will he agree to speak to the Crown Prosecution Service and his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that Lancashire constabulary—as you know, Mr Speaker, the finest police officers in our United Kingdom—can be out getting criminals and not doing paperwork?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point and has significant experience as a lawyer himself. I can confirm that there is extra resource for the CPS in the spending review, and the Home Office and our Department work closely together on that question and will be looking at what more we can do to improve those processes.

On 5 October, the Secretary of State said it would take up to 12 months to get the backlog down to pre-pandemic levels. Yet we know now, according to the Ministry of Justice’s own analysis, that the backlog may not return to those levels until 2025. Just this morning, he said it could take up to eight years. Was he mistaken when he said it would only take a year, or has it taken him a little longer to get on top of the Department?

On the contrary, I can confirm that what my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor actually said was that cases would start to stabilise. They are stabilising now, at around a 60,000 backlog, but we accept that that is still significant. I think what matters to our constituents, though, is not the size of the number of cases outstanding—though that is important—but how long their case is going to take. On timeliness, we are seeing a very significant improvement, because we are working at full capacity. In July, the Crown courts in this country sat more days and disposed of more cases in a single month than at any time since November 2018. We are making significant progress, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the additional investment in the spending review, which will ensure we can go even further.

I am glad to see the Minister come to the aid of the Secretary of State, but he has not answered whether it is a year, eight years or 2025. The Secretary of State told Sky News today that he did not recognise that there was a workforce crisis in the criminal justice system. The Lord Chancellor has got to get real. The workforce is beyond crisis: it is in end times. Criminal solicitors and barristers are leaving in droves, cases are up right across the country, they are stalled right across the country and nobody is available to take them. The Criminal Bar Association is threatening to strike. How does the Lord Chancellor expect to reduce the backlog if there is no one available to take on the cases? Holiday time is over. It is time to act, or let the system collapse.

It is quite extraordinary: 43 minutes ago in Bill Committee, the Labour party voted to keep clogging up our courts with immigration and asylum cases with almost no chance of success. Quite extraordinary. Those cases take up 180 days of court time. That means a High Court judge, and that is precious resource. That is why we are taking that measure. It just proves that when it comes to the backlog in the courts, Labour says one thing and does another.