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Courts System

Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2022

We are investing £1.3 billion in transforming the justice system, including by introducing 21st-century technology and online services to modernise the courts. Digital reforms and simplified services are removing simple cases from court; cutting down on unnecessary paperwork; and helping some of the most vulnerable people, who are facing difficult situations, to get justice as quickly as possible. That is also critical to enable us to recover workloads in courts and tribunals, which are still experiencing the impacts of the pandemic.

It takes private landlords an average of about nine months to repossess a property through the courts, and the end of section 21 repossessions will lead to more cases. The rental reform White Paper committed to improving the courts system. Will the Minister commit to those reforms being in place before the Government make changes to the way that private rented tenancies operate?

My hon. Friend asks an important question. I can confirm that on 16 June, the Government published their response to the “Considering the case for a Housing Court” call for evidence. Moreover, we are injecting more than £10 million a year into housing legal aid through our reforms to the housing possession court duty scheme. By 2023, we will modernise how the courts deal with possession claims as part of the Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service reform programme that I referred to. We will further streamline the court process to ensure that landlords can get possession in the most urgent circumstances. Finally, we will continue to make administrative efficiencies to maximise bailiff resource for enforcement activity, including the enforcement of possession orders.

I thank the Minister for his substantive reply. Modernising the courts system is essential if we are to clear the covid backlog and get victims the justice they need. I ask him to update the House on video technology and remote hearings, and how they can help.

My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. We have to understand that when the pandemic hit, it presented the greatest challenge to collective access to justice for many decades. We cannot underestimate the way that technology in every jurisdiction, including Scotland and England and Wales, helped to ensure that we maintained access to justice as far as possible. To confirm, more than 70% of all courtrooms, including more than 90% of Crown courtrooms, are fitted with our video hearings platform, which enabled up to 20,000 cases to be virtually heard every week at the height of the pandemic. Of course, whether a specific hearing is heard remotely or in person is a matter for the independent judiciary, but I confirm that we work closely with it through HMCTS to look at what more we can do to increase throughput and output in our courts by the use of technology.

What is the point of having a modernised courts system if we do not have the lawyers to go with it? On what date will the Minister meet members of the Criminal Bar Association to discuss pay and a modernised courts system?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. Further to the question of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), I can confirm that I have met the chair of the Criminal Bar Association seven times since the publication of the independent review of criminal legal aid. My officials meet representatives of the CBA almost weekly, so there is lots of engagement going on. I meet frequently with the Bar Council and the Law Society, because we have to remember the criminal solicitors’ view in all this as well. I can clearly confirm that we have decided to increase most of the key criminal legal aid fees by 15% from the end of September. We think that is a generous offer, as I am sure most of our constituents would agree, in the light of what is happening with the economy. I urge those engaged in disruption to reconsider so that we can get back to reducing the backlog, instead of threatening to increase waiting times.

The courts system relies on litigants having access to appropriate advice and representation, so why are the Government cutting funding to the Support Through Court charity and extending fixed recoverable costs to housing cases that will prevent law centres and other providers from having the means to represent vulnerable tenants against bad landlords, including in disrepair and unlawful eviction cases?

On the hon. Member’s first point, I have provided a written answer, which I will happily forward to him—I cannot remember if the question was from him—in which the existing position on funding was clarified. I am confident that we have put in a huge funding package across the justice system, with £477 million to support court recovery in the spending review. That is a significant investment, but I am more than happy to look at what has happened to funding for specific charities.

As the Minister considers how to modernise the courts system further, he might want to reflect on the lessons learned—or not—from a court case in 1984, when 37 workers from the Cammell Laird shipyards were unjustly imprisoned at a maximum security prison, and as a result were sacked, blacklisted, and lost redundancy and pension rights. Will he commit today to examine what papers his Department and the rest of Government hold on this case so that such an injustice can never happen again?

If the hon. Member writes to me, I will be more than happy to get my officials to look into that historical case.

My hon. Friend talks about implementing the Bellamy review, but that recommended a 15% rise immediately. As I understand it, the Government are saying there will only be a 15% rise from September, and that will only be in respect of new cases. Why do the Government not commit themselves to implementing the Bellamy review, thereby ensuring that our courts are not blocked as they have been?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as ever. What the Bellamy review said was that the increases should be delivered as soon as is practicable, and I am 100% certain that we are doing so. We had to consult, which is a requirement under public law principles, and we have to legislate through a statutory instrument, which is the parliamentary procedure, but I am confident that we are delivering this as fast as we can. There have been calls for the increases to somehow be backdated to existing work, but there are huge legal questions about that and it is also very difficult practically. How practical would it be, politically, to start delivering backdated increases in public sector pay?