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HM Courts and Tribunals Service: Backlog

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2021

In common with so much of the public sector, and life in general, courts have been profoundly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The Government have taken decisive action to address this, investing a quarter of a billion pounds in covid recovery, which has paid for, among other things, 40 Nightingale courtrooms, soon to increase to 60 by the end of this month, and installing video technology enabling over 20,000 hearings a week across all jurisdictions to take place. As a result of that, for example, the outstanding caseload in the magistrates courts has dropped by about 50,000 cases over the past eight months.

Three court buildings have now failed safety inspections by the Health and Safety Executive, yet the Government continue to say that courts are covid-secure. What evidence is there to support this claim, and what steps are Ministers going to take to ensure that no more court buildings fail safety inspections?

We work very closely with Public Health England and follow the guidelines that it gives us. The number of coronavirus cases that have been detected among court users is no higher than among the general population. It is not true to say that there are any more coronavirus cases in courts than anywhere else. That is, in part, because we have invested so much in coronavirus measures like installing plexiglass screens, ensuring there is social distancing, and having overspill rooms so that people can space out when using courts. Where we have tested people in courts, we found extremely low levels of coronavirus cases.

I am encouraged by the measures my hon. Friend is taking to catch up on the backlog. Will he update me specifically on how many Nightingale courts are now open and in use for Crown court work?

There are currently, as we speak, 49 Nightingale courtrooms open and available for work. There are five more opening this week, one of which is Croydon, the borough that I have the honour of representing in south London, and by the end of this month we will get up to a total of 60. Many of those courtrooms can be used for Crown court work, but even where they cannot—for example, because they do not have custodial facilities—they are very often able to do work that would otherwise be done in a Crown court centre that is then freed up for work where, for example, custody suites are required. This is making a real contribution and we intend to go further.

Justice delayed is justice denied. That is no cliché; it is the lived reality for the many, many victims who have not had their day in court during this pandemic. The Minister has said that he expects the number of cases to be brought back to acceptable levels before Easter 2023. Is this really acceptable, and what confidence can victims have that this late date will be met?

I do agree that timely justice is essential. In the magistrates courts, the outstanding caseload has already come down by about 50,000 cases since last summer, which is very welcome progress. In Crown courts, we are now getting through about 2,000 cases a week, which is about the same as it was before the pandemic. But we do need to go faster: the hon. Lady is right. I think the judiciary eased off listing a little bit in January, February and the early part March owing to the more recent lockdown. Now we are moving out of those restrictions, in phases, our expectation is that listing levels will go up again. We have certainly created the capacity to do that, with 290 jury courtrooms available. As listing levels increase, using the capacity we have created I expect the outstanding caseloads to come down.

This is an issue that is very close to the heart of many of my residents in South West Hertfordshire. How is the Department increasing use of remote hearings to ensure the safety of the people involved during the covid-19 outbreak?

I thank my hon. Friend for a very prescient question. We have made a huge investment in IT and technology. We have purchased getting on for 10,000 laptops to enable remote working and video working. We have rolled out the cloud video platform on an expedited basis. As a result of that work, more than 20,000 hearings per week across all jurisdictions are now being held remotely. That is orders of magnitude higher than was the case before, and that is why we have managed to keep getting work done across so many parts of the jurisdiction when in many other countries around the world work has considerably slowed down or even stopped.

An application for bail to Chester Crown court today will not be listed until February next year. This is not a problem of the pandemic, as there was already a backlog because of court closures and because the Government chose to reduce the number of sitting days at Chester Crown court and others. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) says, how can the Government claim to be the party of law and order when justice is being delayed and justice is being denied?

The hon. Gentleman talks about sitting days, and the Lord Chancellor has confirmed that there will be no constraint on sitting days at present. The judiciary can list as many cases as they like, and we are anticipating a very considerable increase in sitting days for the next financial year. The hon. Gentleman talks about the justice system prior to the pandemic, and he may be aware that the outstanding Crown court caseload prior to the pandemic was 39,000—considerably lower than 47,000, as it was under the last Labour Administration. He talks about our record on law and order, and he may be aware that the only authoritative source of crime figures, the crime survey, shows a 41% reduction in crime since 2010, from 9.5 million to 5.6 million, so I will certainly be taking no lectures on law and order from the Labour party.

Will my hon. Friend join me in recognising the efforts made by the police and crime commissioner in Devon and Cornwall, Alison Hernandez, in helping to ensure that our area was the first outside of London to set up virtual remand hearings in police custody during the pandemic? Can he assure me that Devon and Cornwall will continue to receive its fair share of resources and funding to continue dealing with the backlog in criminal cases?

I pay tribute to police and crime commissioner Alison Hernandez and all those working in Devon and Cornwall and across the country. I congratulate them on being first out of the blocks on video remand hearings. We are continuing to do video remand hearing work, particularly during the recent lockdown, and we have in fact made some funding available to support some forces to do that. I am sure that Devon and Cornwall will be receiving its fair share of support as part of the Government’s commitment to recruit 23,000 extra police officers, underlining our commitment to law and order.

As we have already heard, the Crown court backlog has reached nearly 57,000 cases. Many victims of rape and sexual violence face waits of three or four years until their case comes to trial, all the while unable to fully access the therapeutic support they desperately need. It is yet another example of this Government failing to support victims of male violence properly. Will the Minister finally listen to calls from the Victims’ Commissioner and urgently roll-out section 28 measures to all intimidated witnesses, so that victims of these horrific sexual crimes can give evidence as soon as possible, relieving some of the burden of stress and anxiety that they carry as they journey through our criminal justice system?

I share the shadow Minister’s concern about rape prosecutions. There is a rape review currently under way. It is being worked on by the police Minister and the Lord Chancellor, and will be reporting very shortly. Much of the waits actually relate not to the court system but to the time taken to collect evidence, to disclosure issues and to the time taken to prosecute, which is why we are putting £85 million extra into the Crown Prosecution Service.

The shadow Minister asked about section 28. The application of section 28 has been considerably widened recently, and we want to make that available as widely as we can, as quickly as possible. We also want to support victims. That is why we will be spending £140 million in the next financial year—a significant increase—on supporting victims and witnesses.

Finally, on rape, perhaps the shadow Minister can explain to the country and his constituents why it is that this evening the Labour party will vote against—

Order. Minister, we need to calm down. [Interruption.] I am not being funny; you are taking advantage of a situation and I do not expect that. [Interruption.] It is no use looking at me in that way. Trying to score points at the end is not the way we need to do it. We need shorter answers to get through the questions as well.