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Court Cases Backlog

Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2021

20. What estimate he has made of the length of time required to clear the backlog of Crown court cases resulting from the covid-19 outbreak. (904766)

We are already seeing the results of our efforts to tackle the impact of the pandemic on our justice system. Outstanding cases in magistrates courts are falling and are close to recovering to pre-pandemic levels. In the Crown court, the backlog is stabilising. 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 about 60,000 today to an estimated 53,000 by March 2025.

What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that evidence is not compromised by the passage of time if there is a delay?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Since 2000, outstanding cases in the Crown court have never been below 30,000, so it is inherent in the criminal justice system that some cases take time. It is important that we consider how to preserve evidence and section 28 is a key part of that. Since November 2020, vulnerable witnesses have had the option to pre-record cross-examination evidence in advance of a trial. In September, we extended the pilot to allow intimidated witnesses to pre-record their cross-examination evidence to a further four Crown courts. We recently set out that we want to go much further and roll it out to all Crown courts.

Reducing the Crown court backlog to 53,000 still does not take it back to pre-pandemic levels. We cannot just blame covid for the backlog, because in the year before the pandemic, it grew by 23%. Does the Minister regret the Ministry of Justice’s decision to slash sitting days in 2019?

The key point is that we have lifted and removed the limit on sitting days in the Crown court for the moment. In February 2010, the last comparable full month when the Labour party was in power, the backlog in the Crown court was about 48,000. It was 40,000 in the month before we went into the first full lockdown. As anyone in the court system knows—our professionals and our judiciary—the pandemic has had a huge impact.

We are confident that we have a wide package of positive steps that we are bringing forward, including the funding that I just announced plus the steps in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill that will see more cases moved from Crown court to magistrates court. Perhaps with a new shadow spokesman—I welcome him to his position—the Opposition will finally accept the importance of those measures and join us in supporting the Bill on Third Reading.