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Serious Criminal Cases Backlog

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 20 January.

“The Covid pandemic is truly unprecedented. It has affected every corner of our lives—from hospital operations delayed, to schools closed, to businesses struggling and even to how Parliament itself operates, we have seen Covid’s effects. The court system is no different: bringing people safely into buildings for trials —especially jury trials—and hearings is a difficult thing to do. That is why so much has been done to keep delivering justice in these difficult times.

We have invested £142 million in upgrading court buildings and technology, alongside £110 million to increase capacity, making an investment of over a quarter of a billion pounds in court recovery this year. We are hiring 1,600 extra staff. We have opened 19 new Nightingale courts, with 35 new courtrooms. As of today, we have over 290 Covid-safe jury trial courtrooms—substantially more than before the pandemic. We have installed plexiglass screens in 450 courts to protect users. We have installed cloud video platform technology in 150 magistrates’ courts and 70 Crown Courts, allowing 20,000 remote hearings per week.

In the first lockdown, and as these measures have been put into place, backlogs have, understandably, developed. That has been the case across the world. But the fruits of our labours are now being seen. We have been faster than almost every jurisdiction to recover and we believe that we were the first country in the world to restart jury trials, back in May. Since August, the magistrates’ court backlog has been relentlessly reducing, month on month. Crown Court jury trials are obviously much harder, for reasons of social distancing, but even there, in the last four weeks before Christmas, Crown Court disposals exceeded receipts for the first time since Covid began. At this very moment, as we stand here, about 230 jury trials are taking place. The joint inspectors’ report said earlier this week:

‘It is a real testament to the criminal justice system that in spite of the pandemic … service was maintained.’

I pay tribute to the judges, magistrates, jurors, witnesses, victims, lawyers, court staff, Crown Prosecution Service staff and Ministry of Justice officials who have made that monumental effort to deliver justice in spite of Covid.

We will not rest. We are adding more courtrooms, further increasing remote hearings, and examining options for longer operating hours. We are also taking action to mitigate the impact on victims and witnesses, this year providing an extra £32 million of funding and next year an extra £25 million of funding, including for rape and domestic violence.

This year has been incredibly difficult in the courts, as in so many places, but through a monumental, collective effort the system is recovering. The recovery will gather strength and pace with every day that passes, and I know that everyone in the House will support that work.”

My Lords, by 2010 the system did 150,000 jury trials a year with about 47,000 waiting, about 30%. The median period between crime and court disposal was 240 days. By the time the pandemic started in March last year, jury trials were down to 100,000 a year with a median delay of 305 days, so fewer trials and longer waits. Now there are 54,000 cases awaiting a jury trial and rising. No one can blame the courts for Covid. The judges, court staff, defence and prosecutors have done bravely and well but the Ministry of Justice has overpromised and underdelivered. It said that there would be 200 Nightingale courts in which jury trials could be done; there are 20. Some 600 people in the last seven weeks have got Covid, from judges to court staff. There is no systematic testing. We have not made the necessary changes to preserve jury trials. What is the target for getting the backlog down and how is it going to be achieved?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord fails to put this information in context. In the Crown Court, prior to the Covid pandemic hitting in March last year, the outstanding caseload was 39,000, which was well within the range of 33,000 to 55,000 over the last decade. Immediately before the pandemic hit, we had increased the number of sitting days in response to an incoming demand on the courts. He will be aware that we have taken various steps to ensure that delays are minimised. However, I agree with him on one point: that we should pay tribute to the judges, magistrates, jurors, witnesses, victims, lawyers, court staff, CPS staff and, if I may say so, MoJ officials who have made a monumental effort to deliver justice in very challenging times.

With respect to the answer just given by the noble Lord, the Secretary of State’s response last week was complacent and lacked urgency. The four chief inspectors of probation, police, prisons and the CPS came together to produce a joint crisis report, expressing their grave concern about the “unprecedented and very serious” backlog of Crown Court trials—54,000-odd cases with trials scheduled into 2022—and the disastrous effects of these delays on victims, witnesses, youth offending teams, defendants and prosecutors. As long ago as July last year Caroline Goodwin, then chair of the Criminal Bar Association, pleaded with the Government to

“get serious and open up 50 more buildings and focus on criminal trials.”

Now many more are needed, along with much more funding to stave off collapse. Yes, efforts have been made and in difficult circumstances, but why the self-congratulation? Where is the urgency? What are the Government now going to do?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that there is no complacency whatever. In fact, in September we published a crime recovery plan to which members from all groups involved in the criminal courts contributed. That plan was put together after significant consultation and collaboration. It is now being implemented. We now have more rooms for jury trials. We have plexiglass to enable social distancing and are using Nightingale courts including, I am pleased to say, St George’s Hall in Liverpool, where I first saw justice in action. We are exceeding the goals in the plan. The target was 250 courts safe for jury trials by October; we have exceeded that number and are improving the position yet further.

I warmly welcome my noble friend from the next-door chambers to mine in the Middle Temple, both to this House and to his place in government. Will he accept that the £250 million in court recovery money mentioned in the Answer to the Urgent Question is not new money but reannounced expenditure? Does he also agree that it might be more useful if we were told how many courtrooms were not being used at all, compared to the limited number of Nightingale courts in operation that cannot anyway deal with dangerous defendants on remand in custody —for example those on charges of homicide or rape?

My Lords, the MoJ has invested record amounts. There was an investment of £142 million to improve courts, tribunals, buildings and technology. That was, in fact, the single biggest investment in court estate maintenance for more than 20 years. Of course we will build on that, but it would be fair to say that everybody is doing their best in extremely challenging circumstances.

My Lords, any backlog in the criminal justice system is worrying because it results in delays, and delays breed delays and result in injustice. They must not be allowed to fester because of the damage they can do to the justice system as a whole. This backlog is especially worrying because of its scale, its subject matter and because it is no doubt substantially due to Covid. What is required is a concerted effort to tackle the backlog and stop it festering and growing further out of control. There needs to be a plan to which all the criminal justice agencies sign up, including the Government, the judiciary and prosecution and defence lawyers, properly resourced to tackle the backlog as a matter of urgency. The Minister seems to suggest that there is such a plan. If so, when does he expect to see an improvement in the current situation and how is the plan being implemented?

My Lords, there is such a plan. I refer the noble and learned Lord to the answer I gave a few moments ago about the crime recovery plan that we set out in September last year. He is certainly correct: there is an old adage that justice delayed is justice denied. We are working very hard to make sure that there are no greater delays than those necessarily caused by the circumstances in which we are living.

I draw attention to my interest on the register as the Anglican bishop for Her Majesty’s prisons. The backlog of cases has a serious impact on offenders, victims and witnesses. On top of this, projections from the Ministry of Justice show that the prison population is expected to jump to almost 100,000 in 2026, which adversely affects prison staff as well as prisoners. Does the Minister agree that resources could be better spent on police-led diversion work and community-based provision, which could start now?

My Lords, when looking at the criminal justice system, I agree that it is mistake just to think about courts, sentencing and prisons. One has to look at it in a broader and wider context. To that extent, the points that the right reverend Prelate makes are well made.

My Lords, there is clearly no quick fix for a backlog of this magnitude, but will the Government consider extending to other witnesses the existing provisions under Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act? These currently enable vulnerable witnesses to record their evidence and be cross-examined away from the courtroom at an early stage before trial. That recording can be replayed later at trial, with the result that evidence is not forgotten and footfall at court is usually reduced when the case finally gets to trial.

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point. This Government have taken a number of steps to ensure that vulnerable witnesses can give evidence in that way. Indeed, noble Lords will be aware of provisions that build on that in the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is going through Parliament at the moment. To take that point further would, I think, require more careful consideration, but I would be very happy to discuss that with the noble Baroness in due course.

My Lords, will my noble friend and the Government please understand the toll that unacceptable delays in the criminal justice system takes on even provenly innocent individuals? I know from personal experience that delays in both the trials and sentencing of those who make false accusations can drive people to consider suicide. Sadly, I know of other cases where individuals did take their lives.

My Lords, the noble Lord is of course correct that delays in the criminal justice system can affect not only the defendant but others involved, including victims and witnesses. The listing of cases is ultimately a matter for the judiciary, not the Executive, so I am limited in what I can say. However, I can confirm, for example, that at the moment the majority of cases where a defendant is in custody have been listed for trial before July 2021.

My Lords, are the Government considering two possible steps that would help to reduce the unacceptable backlog of cases in the Crown Courts? The first is to reduce the number of jurors to, say, seven, making it easier to ensure social distancing in court rooms, and the second is to allow defendants who are legally represented to choose trial by judge alone in some categories of cases where juries are currently required?

My Lords, trial by jury is a cornerstone of the criminal justice system in this jurisdiction. With the support of Public Health England and Public Health Wales, we have made adjustments to more than 290 court rooms and jury deliberation rooms so as to facilitate trial by jury. Reducing the size of the jury is therefore unlikely to free up an additional amount of space for jury trials, and it would also require primary legislation. As to the other point that the noble Lord makes about trial by judge alone, that would, I think, require a significant change in our criminal justice system, and therefore very careful consideration would be required before embarking on that change.

My Lords, unfortunately, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I will pause a moment or two for those who wish to escape the Chamber and those who wish to come in.