Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, last month, 25 March marked two years since the Coronavirus Act gained Royal Assent. This Act gave us the necessary powers to tackle the direct health impacts of the Covid-19 virus, support individuals, businesses and the economy, and maintain our critical public services during the pandemic. When the Act was introduced, this House and the other place agreed for the temporary provisions within it to have a two-year lifespan. The Government have always been clear that these provisions would remain in place only as long as they are necessary and proportionate to respond to the pandemic. Thanks to the progress made in the fight against the virus, the Government have been able to repeal the vast majority of the temporary non-devolved provisions in this Act. There are now only five temporary non-devolved provisions remaining in force, which are extended by the regulations before us today.
Four of these provisions, at Sections 30, 53, 54 and 55 of the Act, relate to the justice system. They have allowed the system to continue to function throughout the pandemic, enabling the courts to deal promptly and safely with proceedings, and to avoid unnecessary social contact and travel while upholding the principle of open justice. They are now proving vital in our efforts to support court recovery. These temporary measures are so important to court recovery that we intend to replace them with permanent legislation, but we cannot afford any gap in provision while we wait for that legislation to complete its passage through Parliament, albeit some of it is comparatively well-advanced.
Section 30 removes the obligations for coroners to hold inquests with a jury where Covid-19 is the suspected cause of death. An equivalent measure is included in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which is expected to receive Royal Assent later this spring. The replacement measure has effect for two years and can be extended by regulations made by the Secretary of State. Neither Section 30 nor the new Judicial Review and Courts Bill prevents coroners from holding jury inquests in cases where they consider it appropriate. I think it is important to emphasise this element of discretion vesting in the coroner.
Sections 53, 54 and 55 enable participation in court and tribunal hearings to take place remotely by video or audio links. They also allow audio or video footage to be transmitted to remote observers and create new offences to prohibit the unauthorised recording or transmission of any live links sent from court. Essentially, it is an updating of the power inherent in the court already to regulate the behaviour of those observing its proceedings.
They are due to be replaced this summer with new provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, subject to parliamentary approval. In the meantime, it is vital that these measures remain in place so that our courts and tribunals can continue to hold virtual hearings in an open and transparent manner. These measures continue to be crucial in helping our courts and tribunals to work more quickly through the backlog of cases that has built up during the pandemic.
Currently, around 10,000 hearings each week take place using some form of remote technology. On 14 February, the Lord Chief Justice issued guidance on the circumstances and types of proceedings where it might continue to be appropriate for advocates to attend Crown Court hearings remotely under these provisions. This includes bail applications, ground rules hearings, custody time limit extensions, uncontested Proceeds of Crime Act hearings and those hearings which involve legal argument only. Conducting these types of hearings via audio and video links means that court-rooms can be reserved for hearings which require participants to attend in person, including trials and sentencing hearings.
Without Section 30, the backlogs in our coroners’ courts would be significantly larger, further increasing the demand on local authority-funded coroner services. Hundreds, possibly thousands of individuals, would have to serve on Covid-19 inquest juries and coroner services would have been overwhelmed by the logistics. If the courts are unable to continue to use these provisions, even for a few months, I submit that it will have a significant impact on our court recovery programme. It will mean that defendants are waiting longer than necessary for trial, more complainers are waiting longer than necessary for justice and the bereaved are waiting longer than necessary for inquests. Therefore, we cannot, I submit, allow these powers to lapse. A maximum six-month extension will enable a smooth transition and avoid any disruption to service before replacement primary legislation comes into force. The provisions we are discussing today will be repealed once this new primary legislation is in force.
I turn to address a provision at Section 43 which relates to statutory sick pay in Northern Ireland. Section 43 is extended by this statutory instrument for a period of six months. This enables statutory sick pay to be paid from day one in Northern Ireland for absences relating to Covid-19. While statutory sick pay is ordinarily a transferred matter in Northern Ireland, Section 43 confers on the Secretary of State the power to make regulations in respect of this provision. In this provision, the UK Government are facilitating the extension of Section 43 on the formal request of the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland.
I take the opportunity today on behalf of the Government to note an addendum in the 12th two-monthly report of the Act, which was published on 24 March. This addendum addresses omission of status updates for two temporary provisions in previous reports. These are Sections 42 and 43 that relate to statutory sick pay and extend to Northern Ireland only. On behalf of the Government, I apologise for this omission and welcome the opportunity to correct it. The addendum provides information about the status of these provisions over the course of the pandemic. I have made inquiry of the Bill team about the way in which this addendum is promulgated and I am told that it together with an accompanying apology is placed in prominent view in the report.
I reassure the Committee and the House in general on behalf of the Government that the reporting omission has not impacted the policy relating to these provisions. The addendum provides information about the status of these provisions over the course of the pandemic.
On behalf of the Government, I thank all front-line workers and those working in our courts, tribunals and coroner services for the sterling work they have done to keep the system running.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this statutory instrument. It is fairly technical in the sense that it is a six-month extension of the current emergency provisions —starting from 25 March—to cover the coming into effect and Royal Assent for the two Bills which the Minister mentioned. In that spirit, we do not oppose this statutory instrument.
The Minister set out the importance of this emergency legislation in dealing with the situation we were in during the pandemic. I remind the Committee that I sit as a magistrate in the adult, youth and family jurisdictions, and have sat in a lot of these courts over that two-year period. I have been active in the two Bills the Minister mentioned, in trying to take the best of that experience and use it in continuing to work with an overburdened court system. I accept the points that he made that we are dealing with 10,000 hearings a week that have some form of remote technology in them and that we should do what we can to do hearings remotely, because it frees up court rooms to try to address the backlog.
Understandably, given the nature of this statutory instrument, the Minister did not address the BBC’s headline news today about the continuing and worsening backlogs for sexual offences. I was just looking up the statistics while waiting for this debate and the figures are getting worse: the average case length for sexual offences is 266 days—nine months waiting for suitable cases to come to court. This is getting worse, so I ask the Minister what the nature of the bottleneck is. Is it, as the criminal barristers are saying, that the number of criminal barristers has fallen over recent years? Is it because the number of judges’ sitting days has reduced? Or is it, as I have also heard, that there is a difficulty and a bottleneck in recruiting a sufficient number of judges to deal with these backlogs, that of sexual offences in particular? The Minister’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, made the point in previous debates that the lack of availability is not of courts as such but of appropriate judges. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether that is still the case.
The Minister talked about Section 43 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 and statutory sick pay provision in Northern Ireland. I noted the correction that he highlighted, which I am happy to take as read; I do not want to go into that any further.
As I opened, we support this statutory instrument. It is a technical measure as provisions within other Bills come into place. Nevertheless, I think the Minister should say something about the seriously bad figures that were produced in BBC programmes and made headline news today.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his contribution and the spirit in which he framed his remarks, acknowledging the justification for this measure to extend the powers brought in under the peculiar and unique circumstances of Covid and the value that they had. As always with the noble Lord, he speaks from a position of expertise and experience of the value of such measures from his position as a magistrate—or, rather, his position as a magistrate informs his remarks.
The noble Lord posed a question on the figures. He sought an answer on the bottleneck and advanced a number of potential causes for it. I can tell the Committee something of the scale of the investment that the Government are making in the criminal justice system over the next three years. The sum of £477 million is to be invested in the system overall, which will allow us to reduce the Crown Court backlog to an estimated 53,000 by March 2025.
To provide additional capacity in the Crown Court, we are extending the sentencing powers in the magistrates’ courts from six to 12 months’ imprisonment for a single triable-either-way offence to allow more cases to be heard at that level in the magistrates’ court and drive down the backlog of cases over the coming years.
The figures we have indicate that these measures are already having a beneficial effect in that the case load in the Crown Court reduced from around 61,000 cases in June 2021 to around 58,500 at the end of February 2022. As a result, we expect to get through 20% more Crown Court cases this financial year than we did pre-Covid. The figures would be 117,000 in 2022-23, compared to 97,000 in 2019-20.
As to the specific causes for the backlog, I am not at this stage able to present the Committee with a view on or answer to the noble Lord’s question. However, if he is content, I undertake to have officials explore the question in detail and revert to him in writing. On the basis of this short debate, I beg to move.