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Court Case Backlogs

Volume 750: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2024

18. What recent assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of the case backlog in the criminal and civil courts. (902806)

We remain committed to reducing the outstanding case loads across our courts in England and Wales. To enable the courts to get through more cases, we have extended the use of 20 Nightingale courtrooms this financial year, allocated £220 million for essential modernisation and repair work of our court buildings up to March next year, and funded unlimited sitting days, including 107,700 days during the most recent financial year, the highest level since 2016.

For anyone who has been a victim of crime, delays in getting cases into court add massively to the stress and anxiety they experience. What would the Secretary of State say to any Member whose local magistrates court had 1,954 criminal cases waiting to be heard at the end of December 2023? Would he say that a backlog of that scale was acceptable?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point about magistrates courts. It is true that case loads in magistrates courts, which of course deal with over 90% of crimes—common assault, criminal damage, non-residential burglary and so on—are significantly lower than they were during the pandemic. The particular pressure is in the Crown court. We made a decision of principle during the white heat of covid not to get rid of jury trials. Now, I know that in Scotland the SNP Government are a little ambivalent about jury trials, but we think they are a very important part of the rights of free-born Britons. We will hold fast to them and we will put in resources: more Nightingale courts; more judges, by raising the retirement age; and more legal aid. We will invest in and recover the system while holding fast to our principles.

When I was a Justice Minister, I introduced virtual hearings so that cases could proceed much more effectively. Will the Lord Chancellor kindly update the House on the progress of those hearings?

I am delighted to hear from my right hon. Friend, who was such a distinguished Minister in this Department. He did indeed introduce virtual hearings in our courts, and time has proved how prescient he was, because that was the right thing to do. I welcome the recent decision by the Judicial Office to make remote hearings the default arrangement for bail applications. In a wider context, a private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), which is currently making its way through Parliament, will amend legislation so that magistrates and judges in magistrates, county and family courts will be able to hear cases remotely when that is appropriate.