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Criminal Court Backlog: Bolton

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022

The outstanding case load in the Crown court in Bolton was 528 at the end of June 2022. We are taking action across the criminal justice system to deliver swifter access to justice for victims and to reduce the backlog of cases. That includes the investment of £477 million into the criminal justice system over the next three financial years to maximise the capacity of the system.

As a former prosecutor, a barrister in private practice and a shadow Justice Minister, I find sitting in this House and watching the Government oversee the managed decline of our legal system deeply concerning. In Bolton, as the Minister has said, the backlog stands at 500—more than 10% greater than six months ago. It includes 20 rape cases among other serious criminal cases. Can the Secretary of State for Justice inform me why the Government have effectively legalised criminal activity in Bolton, in Greater Manchester and throughout Britain?

The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of the backlog; it is a serious matter. That is why we have put in a catalogue of measures to help tackle it, including: introducing Nightingale courts, which will be sitting until 2024-25; increasing the cap on sitting days; and raising the retirement age for judges. We have done a lot and I hope the hon. Lady will be gracious enough to congratulate the Lord Chancellor on successfully negotiating an end to the Bar strike, which will help tackle this serious problem.

With regards to addressing the backlog of criminal cases, the Minister will know that the largest category in the backlog of 60,000 cases is sexual offences. Previously, I have made representations to the former Lord Chancellor and the No. 10 policy unit to have specialist sexual courts to address that category. On 16 June, the previous Justice Secretary announced pilot projects for sexual offences courts in Leeds, Newcastle and Snaresbrook Crown court. That is something that I pushed for along with Kim Hollis, the former Director of Public Prosecutions in the British Virgin Islands. Has that taken place and what further steps have been taken to ensure that those pilot project results are taken forward?

I understand that, yes, that has taken place. My hon. Friend raises a very serious issue about the backlog and particularly about the serious offences that are contained within it. This is why we must get the number of outstanding cases, particularly the serious sexual offences, down. As far as the courts specialising in sexual offences are concerned, we are looking at pilots and considering the matter. There are pros and cons to that approach, and that is represented right across the criminal justice system with some people speaking up in favour of it and others against. That is why we need to look incredibly carefully at that very serious issue.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for raising this question—a question that could be asked of each and every town and city with a courtroom, because the picture is dire up and down the country. I am glad, however, that the Ministry of Justice got back round the table with representatives from the criminal Bar and engaged with their concerns so that justice could get moving again. However, just a couple of weeks after that strike action ended, the Minister is facing more. It is about the failure of the Common Platform, which is preventing staff from doing their jobs effectively and holding up justice for victims and defendants alike. I welcome to his place the fourth Justice Minister that I have faced across the Dispatch Box. Will he now do what his managers and predecessors have refused to do and pause the further roll-out of this system until he gets it fixed?

I totally reject the argument that somehow the Common Platform is responsible for the backlog in the courts; it is not. What happened is that the backlog in the courts increased during covid. We were the first country in the world to recommence jury trials and get our courts back working again. The backlog was going down, but we then had the Bar strike, which, understandably, increased it because barristers were not working, but thanks to the actions of the Lord Chancellor, we now have resolved that issue and can look forward to the backlog coming down.