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Royal Commission on Criminal Justice

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 15 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the reply by Lord Keen of Elie on 3 June (HL Deb, col 1357), when they will announce (1) the chair, (2) the timings, and (3) the terms of reference, of the Royal Commission on criminal justice.

My Lords, we are carefully addressing the scope, terms of reference and membership of the royal commission. In doing so, we will embrace the lessons that we can learn from the present crisis to make the criminal justice system more resilient in the longer term.

My Lords, I make no apology for asking this Question again, and I will go on doing so until I get an answer. In June, the noble and learned Lord the Minister described the royal commission as an “important opportunity”, about which further announcements would be made in due time. As the royal commission was announced in December and many, including the Law Society, have highlighted that currently the criminal justice system is not working in an efficient or effective way, when will the Lord Chancellor seize the opportunity?

My Lords, as the noble Lord may be aware, the terms of reference of a royal commission cannot be altered. It is therefore critical that we determine and finalise those terms of reference with care. A small team of civil servants in the MoJ is working to establish the royal commission and it is anticipated that they will transition to make up the secretariat for the commission, which we hope to have operational from the autumn.

My Lords, I refer to my interest in the register. When my noble and learned friend the Minister last dealt with this question on 3 June, he was not able to be very forthcoming but, since then, the backlog of trials in both the Crown Courts and the magistrates’ courts has got even longer. A royal commission will not help, but there are plenty of Crown Court recorders and deputy magistrates’ court judges ready and able to assist. Why are they not being deployed?

My Lords, thanks to the hard work of professionals across the criminal justice system, more than 150 courts have remained fully open to the public throughout the pandemic. By the middle of this month, we anticipate that all court centres will have reopened.

My Lords, I first declare an interest as a retired criminal barrister and the mother of a practising one. It is clear that the report of the royal commission is a very long way away. Will the Minister tell us what is happening right now to clear the trial backlogs, by reopening courtrooms that have been mothballed, opening new ones, using part-time judges—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, has just suggested—overhauling the case-listing system and ensuring that there is adequate technology to tackle the crisis in the criminal justice system, which is the result of a long period of chronic underfunding which far pre-dates the current crisis?

My Lords, we are looking at all the matters addressed by the noble Baroness and we have taken steps to open additional courts across the country. We continue with that endeavour to address the backlog of cases that has emerged since the pandemic.

My Lords, I am aware that soundings have been taken as to the introduction of smaller juries in criminal cases. Whether this is to deal with the pandemic or the backlog of trials, or is for the long term, is it not precisely the sort of issue which a royal commission should discuss publicly and openly before a decision is made?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a gross imbalance between rising levels of reported crime and a fall in prosecutions to a 50-year low, after a decade of cuts in the police, forensic services and the CPS? Can the Minister say whether the royal commission will consider the growing use of out-of-court disposals when it looks at the workings of the criminal justice system?

My Lords, we have previously announced increases in the provision for police numbers. With regard to the royal commission, the terms of reference have not yet been finalised; I am therefore not in a position to confirm the precise terms.

My Lords, will the royal commission take into account the importance of strengthening offenders’ family and other relationships to further the aim of reducing reoffending and to prevent intergenerational crime?

The matter to which my noble friend refers is one of considerable importance but I cannot say that it is an issue that will be embraced by the royal commission.

My Lords, after years of underfunding, our criminal justice system is crumbling. Criminal trials have dropped to an all-time low despite recorded crime continuing to rise. Can the Minister tell us when exactly the terms of reference for the royal commission will be finalised? Also, can he guarantee that the commission will have a comprehensive remit and be able to look at every part of our criminal justice system, and will he ensure that support for victims is put at the top of its agenda?

My Lords, we anticipate that the royal commission will be able to commence its work in the autumn, having before it a finalised set of terms of reference. We have to be realistic about how the royal commission will operate. We wish it to report within 12 to 18 months; accordingly, the terms of reference will have to reflect that timescale.

My Lords, as a criminal law practitioner for more than 40 years, I warmly welcome the setting up of the commission. The listing and hearing of criminal trials is in a mess and underfunded, and efforts to increase court sittings are belated. Will funding for criminal legal aid be part of the remit of the royal commission?

My Lords, as I have indicated already, I am not yet in a position to confirm the remit of the royal commission as the terms of reference have not yet been published. Again, I remind noble Lords that we are concerned to ensure that the terms of reference are manageable in the context of our wanting a report within 12 to 18 months.

My Lords, the Minister has announced a White Paper on community sentencing and sentencing more widely, and that is to be followed by a government Bill. A royal commission will not examine those matters because they are already under way. So, having taken out a large chunk of the justice programme, what will be the main focus of what is left for the royal commission to examine?

My Lords, as I said, the terms of reference have not yet been finalised but, clearly, the royal commission will be addressing some of the more fundamental issues with regard to the delivery of criminal justice in England and Wales.

My Lords, there is clearly a large degree of skill in the House of Lords which could contribute to these terms of reference. Since the Minister has said several times that they have not yet been finalised, is he willing to convene a ministerial meeting of interested persons in the House of Lords to discuss the detail of the terms of reference and what they could—and should not—cover, so that when the terms are announced they have broad support in the House?

My Lords, given the stage we have reached in this process, I cannot undertake to carry out such an exercise, which, I suspect, would result in considerable delay. We are in a position where we can finalise the terms of reference and make them public in the very foreseeable future. As I said, we are hopeful that the royal commission will commence its work in the autumn.

I call again the noble Lord, Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick. He is not responding. All supplementary questions have been asked and we now move to the next Question.