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Covid-19: Backlog of Cases

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 10 December 2020

What steps she is taking with (a) the CPS and (b) partner agencies in the criminal justice system to help reduce the backlog of cases as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (910024)

Morning, Mr Speaker. The criminal justice response to the pandemic has been truly collaborative, and I thank all frontline staff for their incredibly hard work. The Crown Prosecution Service is working closely with partner agencies to reduce the backlog of cases in courts. That includes introducing internal measures to manage larger, live caseloads and working to ensure maximum throughput of cases at court. I am pleased to say to the hon. Lady that Newport and Cwmbran magistrates court is now listing cases in line with pre-covid timescales.

The backlog of cases has meant a serious delay in the ability to access justice. As the Law Society has pointed out:

“Investing in legal aid for early advice and legal representation will ensure judicial time is used as efficiently as possible in cases which do go to court.”

What is the Attorney General doing with the Lord Chancellor to ensure that legal aid and early advice are funded properly to help tackle the backlog?

I am grateful for the question from the hon. Lady. I am working with the Lord Chancellor and with all Government Departments to support publicly funded lawyers. At the beginning of the pandemic, the CPS, for which I am mainly responsible, made changes to its system for paying fees to advocates to help support them during this difficult time. In August, the Government invested a further £51 million into the criminal legal aid fee scheme to better reflect the important work that publicly funded barristers provide.

I and members of the Justice Committee join the Attorney General in paying tribute to all those in the justice system who have worked very hard to deal with the extra pressures of the covid pandemic. Recognising that, she will know of course that the Lord Chief Justice has recently observed that a significant number of multi-handed large-scale organised crime cases are likely to be coming into the Crown court system in the coming year. That will add to pressure because of the social distancing arrangements required in Crown courts, and given that we are listing, at the moment, some cases up to 2022, that is clearly not desirable. How is she proposing that the CPS deals specifically with those pressures given also the comments by the inspectorate around disclosure still needing to be improved as that can cause delays at trials?

Again, my hon. Friend raises an important point, because, in order to tackle the backlog and ensure that court activity continues where possible, the CPS has moved over its Crown advocates to increase its resources in reviewing cases and has offered secondments to the Bar. That is something that has been welcomed by the Bar and by the profession. That move to bring CPS advocates in-house to deal with charging and case progression—matters that my hon. Friend raises—ensures that the CPS is in the best place to be ready for trials and to support the courts recovery plan to deal with the backlog and, in particular, those multi-handed trials, which are of concern when it comes to bearing down on this backlog.

I now call shadow Attorney General, Ellie Reeves, to whom I send birthday greetings. Happy birthday.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate the Attorney General on her happy news.

The CPS case backlog is up 55% since March; victims of domestic violence are being told by police to pursue civil action rather than criminal prosecutions because the courts are so overwhelmed; and the latest figures show that domestic abuse prosecutions are down by 19%. On the final day of 16 days of action against gender-based violence, it is clear that the Government are letting down victims on every front. What exactly is the Attorney General doing about this?

I wish the hon. Lady a happy birthday and thank her for her kind wishes, but I have to disagree with the premise of her question.

Of course, the Government take very seriously the challenges faced by vulnerable victims, particularly at this difficult time, and we acknowledge there are challenges and strains in the court system. That is why, earlier this year, the CPS introduced the interim charging protocol with the police, which prioritised high-harm cases, including those with victims of domestic abuse or serious violence. That has enabled a slower decrease or fall in the prosecutions of those cases.

We have also seen the roll-out of section 28 in 18 courts since February, and, as of 23 November, throughout 82 Crown courts. That is a real benefit for vulnerable victims who are going through the traumatic experience of giving evidence in domestic abuse cases and on sexual violence matters.