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Staffing at Courts: Access to Justice

The Secretary of State was asked – in the House of Commons on 14th January 2020.

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Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

What assessment he has made of the effect of trends in the level of staffing at courts on access to justice.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Minister of State (London)

The hon. Member will be aware that the court system is in the middle of a reform programme, whose objectives are to make it more efficient, of course, but also to improve the user experience and access to justice. Despite the intended and planned reduction in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service headcount, I believe that access to justice has been maintained, not least through the very widespread use now of online platforms to access justice, such as issuing and replying to civil money claims online, entering and replying to minor pleas online, and online probate applications and uncontested divorce cases. So I am satisfied that access to justice is being maintained throughout the court reform process.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

That reform programme, which I read as court closures, is creating delays, but there are further delays in respect of the administrative staff who are supporting the courts: for example, I am told that in Chester and other courts CPS court caseworkers are now having to manage maybe three cases at once, with all the resultant delays that that brings about. So will the Minister look at the levels of administrative and support staff working behind the scenes to keep these things moving, because at the moment we are having delays of up to two years in Chester?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Minister of State (London)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his follow-up question. Questions concerning CPS staff levels are a matter for the Attorney General, but I can tell him that substantially larger amounts of money are going into the CPS—£85 million is going in over two years—to hire more staff. Also, innovations such as the common platform—the online system for handling criminal cases—will start to be rolled out very shortly, by which I mean in the next few weeks. So besides putting more money into the CPS, we are using the online system to make the staff working there more effective and efficient.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Speaker, not just as a neighbouring constituency MP, but as a man who is making Chorley very famous? Normally, it is famous for the Frederick’s ice cream parlour, but with you becoming the Speaker Chorley is now even more well known.

The fire sale of our courts and deep cuts to our justice system have created a perfect storm as courts are left sitting empty even while sitting days are cut. The Government’s own statistics show that on average serious cases in the Crown court are taking 133 days longer to move from the offence to completion than in 2010, leaving victims waiting months and months more for their day in court. That is not good enough. Will the Minister commit to providing proper investment in courts and court staff and promise to end the reckless closure programme?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Minister of State (London)

I had not heard of the fame of the Chorley ice cream parlour, but perhaps I should add it to my list of recess destinations. [Interruption.] The Lord Chancellor says he is going to come along as well.

On the question of Crown courts sitting, we need to bear in mind that, as reported by the crime survey, the most reliable measure of criminal offending, over the past nine years there has been a significant reduction in the total number of criminal offences, from about 9.5 million offences in 2010 to about 6.5 million offences today. That is a very welcome 30% reduction under this Conservative Government, so of course, bearing in mind the reduction in the number of criminal offences, one would expect to have fewer sitting days. However, we keep the question of Crown court sitting days under continual review. Just a few weeks ago, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor increased the number of Crown court sitting days in this current financial year by 700 to ensure that we keep working through the outstanding case load. The outstanding case load is at its lowest level since 2001. We will of course keep the question of Crown court sitting days under review for the next financial year—the one starting in a few weeks— and, if necessary, we will of course increase Crown court sitting days.