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Royal Commission on Criminal Justice

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will announce (1) the chair, (2) the timings, and (3) the terms of reference, of the Royal Commission on criminal justice.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

The royal commission is an important opportunity to address some of the key issues affecting the criminal justice system. We are addressing the scope, terms of reference and membership of the commission. In doing so, we intend to embrace the lessons we can learn from the present crisis; further announcements will be made in due course.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. The prison and probation parts of the criminal justice system are in such a deep crisis—and not only because of the impact of Covid-19. I would have thought it sensible at least to have nominated the chair of the royal commission, so that he or she can monitor any lessons learned from attempts at resolution of that crisis.

My Lords, we are confident that the chair and members of the royal commission will be able to take into account the lessons that we can learn from dealing with this crisis in the context of the prosecution of crime, imprisonment and parole.

I declare my interests as set out in the register. There is plenty that a royal commission on criminal justice could consider but it is likely to take a long time for any of its recommendations to be implemented by the Government. Our criminal justice system is under dreadful strain and its problems have been aggravated by the Covid-19 crisis. Does my noble and learned friend agree that we need to deal with the growing backlog of criminal trials, improve the state of our court buildings and prisons, and ensure that those lawyers who do publicly funded criminal law cases are paid a decent wage?

The membership of the royal commission has not yet been finally determined but I am confident that there will be appropriate representation of the legal profession, as there has been with previous royal commissions looking at criminal justice.

As previous noble Lords have indicated, there is an immediate crisis in the criminal justice system, made worse by the Covid-19 crisis—demonstrated, for example, by the fact that there were about 37,000 cases waiting for a jury trial when the crisis struck, and approximately seven of those have been dealt with since. What are the Government’s immediate plans to relieve the current huge pressure on the criminal justice system, which obviously cannot wait for the long grass of a royal commission?

The senior judiciary has been looking at the ability to carry on criminal trials and work in the criminal justice system remotely, and implementing measures to that effect. We hope that these will be developed in the immediate future.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Police Foundation, which has undertaken a strategic review of policing under the chairmanship of Sir Michael Barber. It is expected that a major report dealing with the current and future challenges facing policing will be published in July. Will the Minister advise the royal commission to seek an early meeting with this review body so that the duplication of work can be avoided and an early report on policing produced?

It is clearly intended that prosecution should be part of the royal commission’s mandate, and clearly the commission, once established, will invite contributions from all interested parties, so I am confident that the police will have ample opportunity to address the commission on the issues referred to.

Will the terms of reference include a specific instruction to address the widespread racial and class injustices in our criminal system?

I cannot at this stage specify the precise terms of reference that will be submitted. Of course, once those terms of reference are accepted and proceeded with, they cannot be altered.

My Lords, having sat as a youth magistrate for over 20 years I ask my noble and learned friend whether he agrees that, for the royal commission to be a comprehensive review, it must take into account the developments in the delivery of youth justice—substantially different from that of adults—that have occurred since the last royal commission over a quarter of a century ago.

Clearly the royal commission will seek to embrace the terms of reference that are finally agreed. As the manifesto indicated, there was the intention to cover the areas of prosecution, trial, sentence and parole.

My Lords, while I accept the Government’s best intentions to deliver justice, could the Minister inform the House of the precise numbers of prisoners still being held under IPP provisions, and the disproportion of black prisoners that IPP continues to blight despite its removal in law? When will the Government end this appalling scourge of denied justice? Will the royal commission finally resolve it?

The position with IPP prisoners has been addressed frequently in the past. Of course the legislation in 2012 was not and could not be retrospective. I cannot give a precise number as at today’s date of IPP prisoners held nor of their ethnic backgrounds, but I will write to the noble Lord with up-to-date information and place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House.

I declare a personal interest, having a daughter who is a practising member of the criminal Bar. While the commission is welcome and long overdue, the immediate problem needs to be dealt with today as the criminal justice system is on the point of collapse. What steps do the Government propose to take to increase the number of court sitting days, given that there are empty courts and centres throughout the country that were mothballed to save money; that there are recorders who are ready and willing to sit tomorrow alongside the judges; and, as has been said, that there is a backlog of some 30,000 trials, many of them with people in custody?

Along with the judiciary, we seek to utilise all the court capacity currently available to us by developing the use of remote hearings. We are also addressing how we can best accommodate jury trials within court accommodation. We will continue to monitor that to see where it can be improved and developed.

Will the Minister consider recommending to the commission a consideration of the escalating length of sentences, which have probably doubled during my career, and of the impact upon rehabilitation and reoffending?

The manifesto commitment was that the royal commission would address prosecution, trial, sentence and parole, and I have no doubt that within that it will give consideration to the length of sentences and the need for rehabilitation.

While I understand that my noble and learned friend cannot talk directly about terms of reference for the commission so far, the original idea was that it would look at the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice process. Does he agree that to be effective in the eyes of the public, it must also be local? The closure of many magistrates’ courts has caused considerable problems in local access to the criminal justice service. Can he ensure that the terms of reference look again at how ordinary members of the public who are involved can get access to the system?

I am confident that when addressing these matters the royal commission will have in mind the needs of the public, particularly victims, in the context of access to justice.

My Lords, the time is almost up for that Question and we have in fact completed the 10 questioners. Just to inform the House, there has not been a coup; the Lord Speaker has had a power cut on the Isle of Wight. That is why, with the leave of the House, I will continue in his place.