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Crown Court Backlog

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2024

More than 90% of all criminal cases are resolved in the magistrates court, which includes burglaries, thefts, assaults, criminal damage and drugs offences. Thanks to magistrates’ exceptional efforts, the caseload has come down significantly from its post-pandemic peak, and cases are being heard promptly. To help bring down the caseload in the Crown court, the Government have invested heavily to allow courts to operate at full throttle. We have recruited around 1,000 judges and tribunal members across all jurisdictions this financial year. We have kept open 20 nightingale courtrooms to boost capacity, and we are on track to increase spending on criminal legal aid by more than £140 million a year.

In Yorkshire, Sheffield Crown court has been forced to shut twice in the last two years due to flooding. That is in addition to the already record-breaking court backlog across the UK of 67,000 cases. What measures have the Government put in place to deal with unplanned court closures, to ensure that people still have access to justice?

One of the first things I did when I took on this role was to extract from the Treasury an additional £80 million to go into our court maintenance fund. That is important because it allows us to plan not just reactively this year, but proactively over time. That will create more efficiencies and get us more for our money, and will mean that great courts such as those in Sheffield can continue to do the business.

How does the backlog in criminal court cases vary by region? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with local judicial teams on prioritising and communicating those backlogs?

The senior presiding judge will keep a close eye on regional discrepancies. In certain cases, there is the power to transfer them from one court to another, but that will depend on the suitability for defendants, and witnesses and victims who need to attend hearings. It is important that we send the message from this Chamber that more than 90% of all criminal trials—the cases that people want resolved such as criminal damage, drugs matters and common assault—are dealt with in magistrates courts, and magistrates up and down our country are doing an excellent job at getting through those cases.

I absolutely endorse the Lord Chancellor’s comments on magistrates working incredibly hard to clear backlogs in courts. He will have seen recent journalistic reporting relating to single justice procedure, which is an important element of magistrates’ work. The principle behind the single justice procedure is good, and I have sat on cases in SJP courts, but there are some concerns, in particular around vulnerable individuals who may have mitigation that is not necessarily being addressed. Does he agree that perhaps he could remind Members that magistrates can already use their discretion to refer cases back to open court, where prosecutors can review cases to ensure that individuals who are vulnerable are not served with un-justice?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his colleagues for the exceptional work they do to ensure that justice is done. On the single justice procedure, fairness is non-negotiable, so it is critical that every person who comes before the courts, whether via the SJP or an open court, gets that fairness. There is an issue about transparency. Some important points on that have been raised, and echoed by the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). It is something that we ought to consider recalibrating. Everyone accepts that the SJP works well and is a useful addition. We just need to see whether it ought to be refined in the interests of promoting transparency.