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Criminal Justice System Recovery: Covid-19

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 1 July 2021

What steps his Department is taking to support the recovery of the criminal justice system as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (902032)

What steps his Department is taking to support the recovery of the criminal justice system as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (902046)

I frequently meet criminal justice partners to discuss this important issue. The covid-19 outbreak has been felt keenly by the criminal justice system. Recovery is a priority for this Government. I have been proud of the resilience that criminal justice agencies have shown. There is still more to do, but both the CPS and the Serious Fraud Office have been commended for their efforts at this difficult time. I thank them for continuing to support the delivery of justice.

I thank the police, Wrexham and Denbighshire councils and other authorities in Clwyd South, who have done a great job during the difficult days of the pandemic. How can my right hon. and learned Friend reassure my constituents of efforts to continue to deliver justice in Clwyd South, despite the pandemic?

I thank my hon. Friend for his generous question. I am proud that all criminal justice agencies have worked closely together since the covid-19 outbreak to ensure that essential justice services continue to be delivered. The CPS and the court service in north Wales have worked closely together throughout the pandemic to ensure that courts can be run safely and to maximise the flow of cases, while preserving public health. For example, domestic abuse cases in particular have been prioritised in the magistrates courts, so there are no delays or backlogs for those sensitive cases, where victims deserve our protection and support, but that goes in Clwyd South and it goes everywhere.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his answer. In Sussex, we have a backlog of over 800 Crown court cases—one case is now approaching four years without coming to court—and a rising drop-out rate. The Nightingale court in Chichester is making a real difference, but we still need greater capacity and pace. Can he assure me that every avenue is being pursued to address this backlog, so that we can ensure justice for victims in Eastbourne and in Sussex?

Yes, indeed. CPS South East in her region is working with all criminal justice partners to support the recovery activity within Sussex, including to ensure court capacity can be maximised and file quality improved—of course, the better the file quality, the speedier proceedings can follow. The latest levels of cases that I have seen flowing through the courts indicate that in recent weeks at least, outstanding case load in the Crown court has begun to reduce. However, there is still more to be done, and I should say at this point that there is no limit on the number of days that Crown courts can sit for the next fiscal year. That will enable Crown court judges to hold as many hearings as they safely can and as is physically possible, as we continue to recover from the pandemic.

As we come out of the pandemic, to restore confidence in the criminal justice system, the public need to know that the law will apply equally to everyone, irrespective of rank, job or title. It is clear from the footage of the former Health Secretary and his aide that the law on indoor gatherings was breached. This very same law prevented Her Majesty the Queen from sitting with her family at the funeral of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Does the Attorney General agree that by failing to investigate the former Health Secretary’s breach, this Government are sending the message that there is one rule for Government Ministers and their advisers, and another for everyone else?

The hon. Lady will know that we do not discuss individual cases, putative or otherwise. The reality of the matter is that, as she will recognise, everyone is equal under the law in our system. That has always been the case and remains the case. We have an extremely pressing CPS case load, and a court system that is working very hard to bring justice to all, and that includes victims of serious crime, so I do not recognise the problem she raises. We have a system in this country in which everyone is treated equally, and it is a matter entirely for the independent authorities to investigate each and every case as they see fit, not for Government Ministers.

With a record 60,000 cases in the backlog of Crown court cases, past UK Government austerity is closing legal aid centres and now covid is impacting significantly on access to justice. Does the Attorney General agree that the justice system is vital to keeping cases moving through the justice system, and what does he plan to do to ensure that access to legal aid is available for everyone across the UK?

The hon. Member is right to raise this point. Of course, access to legal aid is very important in the administration of justice, and this Government have maintained funding for that purpose. She is also right to focus on the impact of the pandemic on the system. As I have already indicated, financial matters are being dealt with very generously by the Treasury and the Ministry of Justice. This Government have spent over a quarter of a billion pounds on recovery, as she may know, that has helped to make court buildings safe, including by rolling out new technology for virtual hearings, which of course is less expensive and less time-consuming. There is recruitment of additional staff, and there are Nightingale courts. Whether it be at one end of the criminal justice system or the other, this Government are funding the process so as to ensure speedy, safe and equal justice for all.

The Attorney General rightly referred to the work of the various justice agencies in this regard. The Director of Public Prosecutions gave powerful evidence to the Justice Committee on 15 June about the pressures that the backlog places on the Crown Prosecution Service. Every case that goes to court has to be worked on by CPS staff, and he is concerned that there is a real risk, in his word, of “fatigue” with case levels running at 50% above pre-covid levels. Can we make sure we have a whole-system approach of sustained investment in the Crown Prosecution Service and the rest of the prosecution service so that staff can cope with the demands of getting back on track and having cases brought forward timeously?

I thank my learned friend for his question, and he is right to make this point about the wellbeing of staff in the criminal justice system and, having had Max Hill before his Committee, in the CPS in particular. My hon. Friend will know that Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate’s reports have praised the Crown Prosecution Service and its focus on the wellbeing of staff during this period, because they have continued to deliver essential public service. In spite of the pandemic, staff have continued to attend courts, where necessary, to enable them to fulfil their public duty. I should say that the evidence his Committee has heard is correct: the total live CPS post-charge case load is 51% higher than pre-covid, which equates to 52,000 additional cases. In the magistrates court, there is an estimated increase of 3,800 cases that will require a trial listing, and there is an increase of 11,700—70%—in the Crown courts. So he is right to think about the wellbeing of staff and the fatigue that they are naturally enduring during this time.

Many of my constituents who are small business owners and self-employed are struggling with unpaid invoices and bills for work and services provided, and are threatened with losing their homes. They are not eligible for national support schemes and need to rely on courts to recover their lost money. What will the Minister do to help them get justice as quickly as possible?

The Government are very conscious of the pressure that businesses of all sizes—small, medium and large—have been put under by the pandemic. The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on small businesses, because losses occasioned by the pandemic and its exigencies put considerable pressure on small businesses in particular. Where they have to recover debts owed to them through the courts, the courts will process those matters, but there are prioritisations within the system. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that, to my knowledge, the Ministry of Justice is working hard to support the court process, so that all matters can be dealt with as expeditiously as possible.