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Court Cases Backlog

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022

We are taking action across all jurisdictions to bring backlogs down and improve waiting times for those who use our courts by expanding physical capacity, introducing new legislation and ramping up judicial recruitment. We are already seeing the results of our efforts. In the Crown courts, the outstanding case load has reduced from approximately 61,000 in June 2021 to approximately 59,000 at the end of January 2022; in the magistrates courts, the case load is close to recovering to pre-pandemic levels; and for most of our tribunals, the outstanding case load is either static or already beginning to reduce.

The Minister will be aware that a recent report by the Public Accounts Committee revealed that the number of rape and sexual assault cases waiting to be tried increased more than 400% in the first year of the pandemic. Delays in such cases were already over 18 months pre-pandemic. The toll that those delays take means that the victims of sexual assault are much more likely to withdraw their case. Will the Minister support greater investment, as the Committee and indeed the rape review recommend, in independent sexual violence advisers, whose support for victims halves the likelihood of their withdrawing from the process?

The hon. Member makes a very good point. We sympathise with those whose cases are backlogged. Our aim is to increase capacity across all our courts so that we can continue to bring the backlog down. On her specific point about funding, I am pleased to say that investment in the advisers will increase to £185 million by the end of the spending review.

I welcome the £477 million that the Government have committed to dealing with the backlog, but we know that it is an acutely regional issue. Will the Minister assure my constituents in the Black Country that as the Government roll out the £477 million, they will take a regional approach to its operational delivery? One way he could do so might be to visit the Black Country and see how he can ensure it gets the maximum delivery from that £477 million.

I would be absolutely delighted to come and visit. I should say, of course, that the biggest Crown court in the midlands is Birmingham’s, which was the first that I visited after getting this job. My hon. Friend is right that we have to look at the issue regionally. There are significant variations, but the most important thing we can do is have wider capacity across the country. Alongside the almost half a billion pounds of funding that my hon. Friend mentions, key measures include increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers so that we can free up almost 2,000 days in the Crown court, where the most serious cases can be heard.

Last week, the roof of Sheffield magistrates court fell in, delaying countless cases. A rape case was delayed when toilet water leaked into a courtroom at Maidstone Crown court in Kent. Survivors of rape already wait three years for their case to come to trial. How many cases have been delayed in total over the past five years because the Government have failed to fix crumbling courts?

I have given the hon. Gentleman a written answer detailing these points, but I am happy to write to him again. As I just said—it is crucial to stress this—not only is the backlog falling, but we want to go further. The key measures include legislation to increase magistrates’ sentencing powers; funding, with almost half a billion pounds in the spending review; and increased court capacity, with renewed Nightingale courts where appropriate. Increasingly, the biggest challenge is judicial capacity, but I am pleased to say that we are recruiting more full-time judges and allowing more part-time recorders to sit for more days. Importantly, having launched our £1 million recruitment campaign for our volunteer judiciary, the magistracy, we have had in excess of 20,000 expressions of interest.

Aylesbury Crown court was the first to fully reopen after covid, thanks to the determined leadership of His Honour Judge Francis Sheridan, who steps down as resident judge this month. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to all the court staff in Aylesbury for their progress in clearing the backlog, and in thanking Judge Sheridan for his constant innovation to make his court more efficient and much more strongly focused on victims?

My hon. Friend, as a former magistrate with much additional knowledge of probation issues, speaks about these matters with huge expertise. I do pay tribute to the resident judge, and indeed to all members of the judiciary. They are, of course, independent from Government, and they have huge responsibilities. As I said during my first appearance at the Dispatch Box, we owe a huge debt to all our judiciary as well as all our clerks and all those who work in our courts for keeping justice going during the pandemic, and we can repay them by taking every possible measure to reduce the backlog.