Courts and Tribunals: Recovery

– in the House of Commons at 12:43 pm on 3rd December 2020.

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Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 12:43 pm, 3rd December 2020

A well-functioning justice system is one of the cornerstones of a mature democracy such as ours. In fair and foul weather, it acts as an anchor for our success as a nation, keeping our citizens safe from harm, guaranteeing fairness in disputes and safeguarding freedoms in our society. It is precisely because of the vital role the system plays that the Government have done everything possible to support justice through the huge challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

As Lord Chancellor, I have been mindful from the outset that justice must continue to be done and, in many instances, it simply cannot wait. In partnership with those who preside over and work in our courts and tribunals, as well as the public and the professionals who rely on and practise in them, my Department has worked at a rate of knots from the beginning of this crisis to keep the system moving, supporting the estate to maintain safety where physical proceedings were necessary and expanding the use of technology to enable many hearings to take place remotely.

As the House will recall, earlier this year I announced a major £142 million investment to support our courts and tribunals to speed up technological improvements and modernise their facilities, and in September, a further £83 million to make the estate covid-secure, recruit 1,600 additional staff and create more Nightingale courts, to add to the 10 that were already in operation.

This funding, the largest investment in justice for several decades, is enabling the system to turn a corner. As a result of the dedication of those who work in the system and this investment, the outstanding cases in magistrates courts have fallen dramatically, and we are now hearing more cases each week than are coming into the system. I pay tribute to the commitment of our magistracy and staff in achieving this. The Crown court is now hearing more cases each week than before the pandemic. The family court is on track to sit at a record number of days this year. To take just one aspect of its work, on average 150 domestic violence protection orders have been issued per week to keep victims and their children safe.

The investment in recovery rightly continues. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury last week approved a further investment of £30 million for this current financial year, which will allow us to open a further 40 Nightingale courtrooms and carry out the work needed to bring a further 40 Crown courtrooms safely into use for jury trials. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of so many dedicated judges, HM Courts & Tribunals Service staff, legal professionals and the public, we were the very first jurisdiction in the world to resume jury trials when other countries had not even begun to contemplate how that might be possible. We have now seen large increases in the number of jury trials taking place across England and Wales, with the installation of plexiglass screens that enable us to open more than 260 jury trial courtrooms safely, in addition to a further 125 courtrooms being used for non-jury trial hearings. Our family courts were transformed overnight to start working almost entirely online by conducting cases remotely via video and audio technology. Now, combined with the opening of our courtrooms for more face-to-face hearings, the family court is dealing with the same amount of, and in some weeks more, work than it did before the pandemic struck.

In civil justice, we are making progress in returning final hearings and track claims to pre-covid levels. We have introduced new arrangements in possession hearings to respond to increased levels of demand, but we are also acting to protect public health by preventing people from being evicted from their homes until 11 January, except in the most serious cases.

Our tribunal system has also responded impressively to the challenges presented by the pandemic. Throughout the crisis, the mental health tribunal and the special educational needs and disability tribunal have continued to operate at or near pre-covid levels through remote video hearings. Employment tribunals have succeeded in returning to pre-covid levels of hearings, primarily through the use of online proceedings. I was fortunate recently to be able to observe a remote directions hearing in the family court. I saw at first hand how the reforms have helped the courts and tribunals continue to operate effectively during the pandemic to ensure access to justice for those who need it.

The quick execution and the continued effectiveness of our contingency planning is reaping particular rewards in the magistrates courts, as I have already mentioned, but the courts are of course a finely balanced ecosystem, flowing from one to the next, and many of the disposals from the magistrates court inevitably go to the Crown court, where there currently exists a larger accumulation of cases waiting to be heard than usual. We should be in no doubt of the gargantuan efforts of judges, staff and legal professionals in the Crown court throughout the pandemic and, in particular, their work in close partnership throughout it to address the build-up of cases.

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer outlined further investment in the courts and tribunals system. The new money earmarked for criminal justice includes £337 million to bolster the Crown court further and to support victims as they make their way through the criminal justice system in what can so often be painful and traumatising circumstances. There is also additional funding to support the wider justice system’s response to covid-19, including £76 million to increase family and employment tribunal capacity and £43 million to ensure that our courts, and indeed our prisons, remain covid safe.

This new funding is both an important and an encouraging next step in terms of resourcing, but there is no better resource in the system than the people who make it what it is, day in and day out. The partnership between the Government, the judiciary, legal professionals and, of course, the public who rely on the justice system is the most important factor in the full recovery of our courts and tribunals. I am sure the whole House would want to join me in expressing our gratitude to everybody concerned.

The justice system is a vital public service. It is crucial to our success as a nation. We still have a long way to go, but at every step along the way during this global pandemic, we have made the resources available and worked with everyone in the system to keep it moving for the people who need it most. Throughout this pandemic and beyond, I will carry on doing all that I can to strengthen those vital working relationships right across the system so that we can restore and refresh our system of justice. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 12:50 pm, 3rd December 2020

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for seeking to keep me and the shadow Attorney General up to date on his plans, on Privy Council terms.

However, the Secretary of State paints a rosy picture, and I wonder whether he is making the fatal mistake of believing his own hype. Let me remind the House of the state of the justice system under his watch. The backlog in the Crown court is now a staggering 51,000 cases, and in the magistrates court there are record numbers of outstanding cases—around half a million. He has just told the House that justice cannot wait, but jury trials are being listed in 2022 for offences committed years earlier. Lawyers have warned that victims and witnesses will avoid the justice system altogether because of the delays.

In June, the chief executive of Her Majesty’s Courts Service said that we need 200 Nightingale courts to fill the gap, but as of 23 November this year just 16 were up and running. The pandemic has played a role, of course, in bringing the Crown court backlog to 51,000 cases, but the truth is that it already stood at 39,000 before the pandemic, and that has left victims, witnesses and defendants in limbo for years.

If the Government are serious about resuscitating the justice system, does the Secretary of State recognise the importance of acknowledging that the main causes of the backlog were the cuts to sitting days and the court closures that his Government imposed? We have 27,000 fewer sitting days than we had in 2016. Between 2010 and 2019, more than half the courts across England and Wales were closed, and he is not finished: the Government plan to close a further 77 courts by 2026.

That the Secretary of State is announcing more Nightingale courts after so many closures exposes this Government’s record on justice as a complete farce. The Ministry of Justice suffered some of the deepest cuts under this Government’s austerity agenda. It was a false economy. The failure to tackle reoffending rates cost the economy more than £18 billion a year. Millions were wasted on outsourced prisons and maintenance contracts that had to be brought back in-house, and let us not forget the £467 million of taxpayers’ money that was squandered on the failed part-privatisation of the probation service, which the Opposition consistently warned against. Does he accept that today’s announcement is the result of a catalogue of errors that the Ministry of Justice, under his watch and that of previous Secretaries of State, previously imposed?

It is welcome that the Government have listened to the Opposition, made this U-turn and finally decided to put some cash into the justice system when it so desperately needs it, but this one-year plan does not provide the certainty we need. Courts, judges, lawyers and all parts of the justice system need long-term, sustained investment. I wholeheartedly agree with the Secretary of State that it is right to praise the extraordinary efforts of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service staff—the justice system would have collapsed and our democracy would be under tremendous strain were it not for their hard effort—but how on earth does he have the cheek to praise them with one hand while freezing their pay with the other?

The backlog for individual cases in employment tribunals has already passed the post-2008 financial crash record, with 37,000 workers in the queue. Analysis by Citizens Advice suggests that if it continues to grow at the current rate, the number of outstanding claims could pass 500,000 by spring. Will the Secretary of State stop the Chancellor’s job crisis becoming a justice crisis by targeting support for employment tribunals? It is critical at this time, as he must appreciate.

We are now halfway through the 16 days of action against gender-based violence and it is clear to see that, despite the Lord Chancellor’s rhetoric, the Government are letting down victims on every front. Due to the enormous backlog of cases, victims of domestic abuse and harassment have been encouraged by the police to take civil action rather than a criminal prosecution because the system is so overwhelmed.

Despite a spike in calls to domestic violence hotlines over the pandemic and an increase in the number of cases reported to the police, the latest statistics show that domestic abuse prosecutions are down 19%. Rape and sexual violence prosecutions are at their lowest ever level in England and Wales. If the criminal justice system does not even have the capacity to get justice for victims of rape and domestic abuse, how can the Lord Chancellor say it is functioning well? Victims need to have faith that the criminal justice system will be there to support them throughout.

Today, the Lord Chancellor says he is delivering a recovery plan. He likes to pretend that all we are recovering from is the pandemic, but the truth is that we need to recover from 10 years of Conservative Government, which had left our justice system on the verge of collapse even before the pandemic began.

The Secretary of State has failed to provide any significant additional support to legal aid practitioners. The breaking point for many firms is likely to arrive in early 2021, especially as the volume of completions in the Crown courts remains low. Many legal aid firms and practitioners urgently need financial support to survive. We know that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are too busy attacking and insulting lawyers, but where is the Lord Chancellor’s recovery plan for legal aid in this country?

Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, the Ministry of Justice has broken the public’s trust. The Government dithered and delayed, failing to provide our courts, prisons, probation services, youth justice system and publicly funded legal aid lawyers with the support they need. After a decade of Conservative cuts and the Government’s mishandling of the pandemic, our justice system works for the wealthy and the powerful, but what about everybody else?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I listened very carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, and I am afraid that, as is sadly so often the case, his peroration was a direct contradiction of the reality of what is happening on the ground across the justice system. We acted from the outset to protect lives, to protect staff and to make sure that our prisons were safe, and the results are well-known. There has been considerable achievement in our prison system, and I know that he would want to acknowledge the work of staff; I am sure he would.

The same can be said about the work done in our courts. This was an unprecedented challenge. We were the first jurisdiction in the world to reopen jury trials, in late May. We are now rapidly reaching the position with regard to jury trials being heard, or guilty pleas being tendered at or just before trial, that we were in before the beginning of this pandemic.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the past in the justice system, which is why in July I announced the biggest increase in court maintenance in not 10 years, but 20 years; he can do the maths and work out the time that he had partial responsibility for the system. This is not a pure story of life since 2010; I have inherited a system that, frankly, needs a fundamental change, which is what I am doing.

The settlement that I have reached will hugely support the increase in sitting days in the year ahead. Already, before the pandemic hit, I had increased the number of sitting days, with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice, from the year prior to my taking office. I was already acknowledging the pressure on the system. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that while 39,000 cases is of course a significant number, it is not the historic high that we have seen in the past. I am working to ensure that the number of trials in that particular statistic is dealt with as quickly as possible, together with all the other important hearings.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about victims. I am sure he would readily acknowledge not only the £25 million announced in the spending review for next year but the in-year funding of £15 million on victims’ services that we continue to roll out. The covid funding that has been administered on behalf of my Department by police and crime commissioners for local victims groups totals over £25 million. Indeed, the announcements I made last year rapidly and significantly increase funding for independent sexual violence advisers to levels that we have never seen before in our country. We have also introduced the revised and streamlined victims code. We are, at every step of the way, taking action to support the victims of crime. I can assure him that when it comes to domestic abuse and sexual violence, the courts are giving priority to those hearings and making sure that they are dealt with as quickly as possible.

On legal aid, again the right hon. Gentleman misses a hugely important development this year, which was the extra funding of up to £51 million for criminal legal aid lawyers via an improvement to the graduated fee scheme as part of the first stage of criminal legal aid review. We are going to embark on stage two very soon, and I will keep him fully apprised of that. He will, I am sure, note with interest that that will result in more investment in criminal legal aid in the year to come. [Interruption.] Oh yes, it certainly will. I know that it is sometimes difficult to accept positive news, but I am grateful to partners in the criminal justice system and those practising in the professions for having given an encouraging welcome to the news last week. I accept, with them, that there is a way to go, but we are now turning the corner, and I am confident that in the years ahead we can enhance, improve and build on the success of our justice system.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

I thank the Lord Chancellor for his statement and welcome what he has said. I and the other members of the Justice Committee certainly wish to join in the tributes that have been paid to the hard work of all those involved in the Courts Service and the broader justice system in dealing with the necessary recovery from the pandemic.

Can the Lord Chancellor help me on a couple of points, though? First, does he accept that it will be necessary to have a multi-year settlement once this year is out of the way to maintain the progress that we need to achieve to get our courts system back to the levels of reform and improvement that we have ambitiously set out? Secondly, will he update the evidence that he helpfully gave to the Justice Committee on Tuesday as to where we are in reducing the backlog in the Crown court? Although there has been progress, he will know that the backlog prior to the pandemic was already at record levels, and that was increasing up until the latest management figures we had that went back to October. Will he give us the projection—and, in due course, the modelling behind it—as to when we will see that backlog start to reduce? None of us wants to see contested trials being listed out to 2022, as I am sure he would agree.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. First, with regard to a multi-year settlement, it would not be right for me to prejudge what the decision of the Chancellor might be on that. The important decision had to be made this year to have a one-year settlement for the obvious reasons of the covid outbreak and the fact that, rightly, there was not a fiscal event—namely, a Budget. I will leave that decision ultimately to the Chancellor. However, my hon. Friend can be reassured that the work being done within the Department is indeed looking beyond one year only and coming up with evidence-based arguments and proposals that lead on to longer-term investment. For example, he will see in the capital programme not only a welcome £105 million extra for court maintenance but the multi-year prison capital programme, which will make a huge difference in terms of modern conditions in our prisons.

With regard to the Crown courts, my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the figures. The figures for Crown court statistics are populated both manually and by automation. Therefore, they take some time to fully settle down. However, I am particularly encouraged by the figures relating to effective trials: trials that end up being “cracked”, as they say, with a guilty plea on the day; and trials brought into the court by the judge just before trial, or a week before trial, where guilty pleas have been tendered. The overall figures I am looking at now through November show a very encouraging increase in that overall number, getting us much closer to the pre-covid baseline. It is not there yet, but if those trends continue, we can get to that pre-covid baseline on trials, I think, in the new year. Of course, that allows us to start to make real progress on the rest of the case load.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

May I also thank the Lord Chancellor for advance sight of his statement?

These matters are, of course, largely devolved to Scotland, where the impact of the pandemic is being felt just as it is in jurisdictions across the world. My colleagues in the Scottish Government continue to work with partners, including the Scottish courts and prosecution services, victims’ groups and the legal profession, to identify the best possible way to deal with the problems that arise from the pandemic. To facilitate social distancing, remote jury trials are taking place across Scotland in the Sheriff courts as well as in the High Court. Additional funding for those was announced back in October. It was pleasing to hear Scotland’s second most senior judge, the Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian, say that there has been an excellent collaborative effort across the justice sector in Scotland, which will increase court capacity in an environment that is safe for all participants.

May I ask the Lord Chancellor something about sexual offences? The European Court of Human Rights has held that the right to an effective remedy means that the state must ensure that sexual offences are investigated and prosecuted effectively, and that the state must also avoid undue delay in getting those cases to trial. Historically, Scotland has very strict time limits and I know that even during the pandemic this responsibility of effective remedy and speedy resolution is one that the Scottish Government take very seriously. Can he confirm that the UK Government take it equally seriously and are having regard to our obligations under the Strasbourg convention in this respect?

Turning to employment tribunals, they of course deal with reserved issues and are UK-wide. I want to raise with the Lord Chancellor the issue of the sharp rise in employment tribunal applications during the pandemic. This increase has gathered pace during lockdown, which tends to suggest that the impact of coronavirus has had a direct effect on the number of claims that are being made to employment tribunals. This has, of course, been an incredibly difficult time for business, but unfortunately there appears to be a trend of employers who are not following correct redundancy procedures, and this is only likely to result in more unfair dismissal claims. What can the Lord Chancellor do to address the increased strain on the tribunal system that this will create?

Finally, genuine mistakes around limitation periods for making an application to an employment tribunal can result in individuals being barred from seeking justice. That can happen in particular to claimants who are not entitled to legal representation or cannot afford it, and who may already have been involved in long and wearying internal grievance and disciplinary procedures. May I therefore ask the Lord Chancellor: is he still looking seriously at doubling the length of the time within which individuals can bring a claim to an employment tribunal from three to six months?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. and learned Lady raised three distinct issues, which I will deal with in turn. First, with regard to obligations to victims of sexual offences, I reassure her that the way in which cases are prioritised in the courts in England and Wales very much bears in mind that important provision in terms of listing. I can give her the encouraging statistic for the most serious offences—sadly, many of them will be sexual offences—that just over 80% of those cases where someone has been remanded in custody have been listed for trial between now and spring 2021. Indeed, we keep a close eye on the progress or otherwise of other cases of a sexual nature. May I say to her that my officials and I have been watching the position in Scotland carefully and talking with colleagues in her jurisdiction about the approaches being taken? We are learning from each other in terms of development.

The position on employment tribunals is that, as I said, the number of cases being heard now has reached pre-covid levels as a result of the increased use of technology. That was an issue to begin with in the employment tribunal, but we are dealing with it. Of course, we have more money allocated next year for that further recovery.

If I may, I will come back to the hon. and learned Lady in correspondence on her specific point about limitation periods. I think I have dealt with all the matters. If I have not, I will write to her.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his statement. As we come out of the pandemic, the challenges, difficulties and errors made along the way need to be reviewed. Will he assure me and colleagues in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service in the Black Country that, as he looks at that, he will take an all-encompassing, lessons learned approach that reaches out to all stakeholders, including the profession and HMCTS staff?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to say that, while covid has been a huge challenge for all of us, we have learned many things about the way in which the system works together, the way in which we use technology and the blend that we can achieve with regard to hearings being partially remote and partially in person. We will never go back to the position prior to the pandemic because, of course, we were already investing over £1 billion in our court reform programme, which was all about improving the technology on the court estate. He is right to make that important point.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Rochdale

I absolutely agree with the Lord Chancellor that an efficient court process is fundamental not simply for individual justice but for our democracy as we want to know it. However, cuts have had an impact on the courts service. He rightly refers to victims—particularly child victims—of sexual violence, and I welcome his words on that. Nothing can be more painful or traumatic than the long-drawn-out process we saw in the past, so I welcome his assurance that such trials are early-listed relative to others, but he knows that in some cases where trials are adjourned, they can still run on not simply for weeks and months but for years. That is painful and absolutely traumatic. Does he agree that we must set targets and ensure that we do not have repetition of delay on delay in those most traumatic and most human of cases?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. As a former police and crime commissioner, he knows the effects of that appalling crime on victims. He will be glad to know that final roll-out of section 28 cross-examination has now been completed in our criminal courts, which means that victims will be able not only to give their evidence in chief on video without having to come to court, as they have been able to do for a number of years—of course, they can do that at an earlier stage—but to be cross-examined on video as well before the trial hearing, saving them additional pain and difficulty when it comes to the court process. There is a lot of reform going on to improve the experience, but he is absolutely right to continue to press me for more and more improvement. I will work on that basis.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

The biggest cause of homelessness is the end of a private sector tenancy, and the Government rightly took action to prevent anyone from being evicted from their home during the pandemic. The position was also, quite rightly, that the most egregious cases of antisocial behaviour could result in a possession order. However, the moratorium comes to an end on 11 January and there will be widespread concern among renters across the country—and, indeed, landlords—about the position with the courts once the moratorium ends, with a potentially huge rise in homelessness. Will my right hon. and learned Friend set out for the House the proposals for possession orders after 11 January?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend knows that, coupled with the action we took to deal with possession applications, we also dealt with enforcement matters to ensure that evictions could not take place. I can reassure him that the increase in the time period required to six months means that we will have, in effect, a long period before particular possession actions might be completed towards the latter end of 2021. I am grateful to the judiciary for having worked extremely hard to prepare a plan for how to deal with these cases. It involves, in any cases that are to be revived, a statement by the landlord as to the current position and the effect on the tenants. A lot of safeguards have been put in to ensure that the interests and rights of tenants are protected, that a balance is struck and that the caseload will be managed sensibly, sensitively and humanely by the courts in the year ahead.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Just a gentle reminder that we have two further debates this afternoon that colleagues will have spent a lot of time preparing for, and we are anxious that they should have enough time to air their views during those debates, so concise questions and brisk answers would be welcome all round.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

As my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy has already spelt out, Halifax county and family court and Calderdale magistrates court were two of the 86 courts that were closed under this Government in 2016 alone. We were promised video links and a technological revolution in access to justice, but four years later, we have had absolutely none of that. The pressures were just transferred to other regional courts, which now face intolerable backlogs because of the virus. Those court buildings are still standing empty, so why not reopen some of them to get the justice system moving again?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady will know that, in some instances, we have been able to do that. There are other instances where the buildings are no longer in the control or ownership of HMCTS, and some of them, having been looked at, were not in the right sort of condition to be used—hence the fact that we have been wide ranging in our approach to Nightingale courts, which we will be scaling up as part of phase 3. I am looking at over 60 courtrooms that can be developed across the country. The important point she makes is about technology. I can assure her that, during this crisis, cloud video technology has already been rolled out to every courtroom, and it is making a real difference to the lives of victims and witnesses. If there are local issues in Calderdale, I would be more than happy to talk to her about them in order to address any particular issues in her constituency.

Photo of Mike Wood Mike Wood Conservative, Dudley South

The effective operation of our magistrates courts is at the centre of our criminal justice system. What progress has my right hon. and learned Friend made in bringing down the number of outstanding cases, and what further action is he taking to bring it down even further?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the central importance of the magistrates courts. They are the first port of call with regard to all criminal cases. I am glad to tell him that since August the overall number of cases being dealt with has exceeded the number of cases coming into the courts, and we are working on the basis that we can return to pre-covid levels in the spring to middle of next year. That is remarkable progress, and I very much hope and believe that it will be maintained.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North

Safety for security guards in courts was a massive concern well before the pandemic, but, as we try to clear the huge backlog, safety concerns have been raised with me around personal protective equipment and the ability to physically distance given the large numbers of people in courts. What is being done to ensure that covid safety guidance is actually enacted, and what does the Secretary of State have to say to the court staff who do not feel safe?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady is right to raise the vital role of court security staff, and indeed all staff who look after the interests of witnesses and victims of crime. She will be glad to know that in the spending review, a further £43 million was allocated for further covid safety measures in our courts and prisons. We have come a long way since the beginning of the pandemic, when there was, as a result of concerns, a ramping up of the cleaning programme throughout the court system. The reports that I am getting from many court users, including staff, are that systems are indeed much better and safer. The use of plexiglass and perspex to help with social distancing is a vital part of that programme, together with a redesign of buildings and the use of extra capacity to allow for social distancing. I have been keeping a very close eye on the PPE situation, and I am satisfied that there are absolutely the supplies to allow our staff to use them. If the hon. Lady wishes to raise specific issues with me, I would be more than happy to hear them.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Conservative, Kensington

Several of my constituents have written to me concerned about delays to probate, which is clearly a very difficult time for families. Will my right hon. and learned Friend update the House on delays to probate?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is right to raise an issue that causes real concern and pain to many families. She will be glad to know that waiting times have improved for each of the last few quarters since the middle of 2019, which was a particularly difficult time for the probate system—and that is despite the impact of covid-19. The waiting time for digital cases is currently between two and five weeks on average, whereas the average time for paper applications is between four and six weeks. I reassure her that individual cases are looked at by my officials. We are always anxious to try to ease the burden that is placed on those who are bereaved at such a difficult time.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

The ban on evictions of tenants was welcome, but it did include cases of antisocial behaviour. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministry has indicated that now that the ban is being lifted, the courts would give priority to dealing with cases of antisocial behaviour. However, I have two very serious cases in my constituency, and we are told that it could be well into the new year before they are dealt with. What priority has the Lord Chancellor directed the courts to give to cases of antisocial behaviour? And if Members have particular cases in their constituency, what action can they take to ensure that they are dealt with expeditiously?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, for clear constitutional reasons, it would not be right for me to direct the judiciary. I assure him, by repeating the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend Bob Blackman, that the judiciary have indeed created a sensible series of practice guidance about how to deal with such cases. Individual delay issues could be raised from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals. I cannot go into the merits of any individual case, but I hear him loud and clear about the importance of dealing efficiently with antisocial behaviour cases.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for standing up for the victims of sexual violent crimes through additional funding for victim support, and an increase in funding for independent sexual violence advisers. Will he provide assurances that a proportion of this funding will be ring-fenced specifically to support children who are victims of sexual crimes, and will he meet me to discuss how we can further the issue of protecting child victims?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend. She will know that the range of support we give involves the child victims of sexual crime, whether male or female. In the past year, we awarded £12 million to 91 rape support centres in England and Wales. As I have said, we have increased, by an additional £4 million until March 2022, funding for 120 new independent sexual violence advisers across our jurisdiction, which will go in some great measure to address the concerns she rightly raises.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges

I do not know whether the Justice Secretary has ever had a family member who has been diagnosed with dementia and has then had to go to the Court of Protection to be able to take over their relative’s concerns, but thousands and thousands of families have had to do that this year. Covid has meant that more families have been brought into that circle, at a time when delays in the Court of Protection are quite extraordinary. When I rang earlier this year, I was told than an emergency case would not be heard until “next Easter” at the earliest. That is real pain and suffering for families that are already going through a tough time. If he has not got the figures now, will he write to me to tell us how we will get this backlog back down to normal?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I have not had the direct experience that I know the hon. Gentleman has, but I have indeed had family experience of the Court of Protection, and I feel acutely responsible to make sure it is working in the interests of vulnerable people. Of course, I will write to him with as much up-to-date information as I can muster. I am grateful to him for having raised this matter with me before. I know it is a real concern of his.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

I accept that delays are inevitable as a result of coronavirus. However, for cases related to Medomsley youth offenders institute, in my constituency, this means delays to justice of another year for so many people who have suffered for so long. Will the Lord Chancellor tell me what additional funding he is putting in place for the courts? Will he assure me that every effort will be made to expedite historical sex abuse cases such as those of the people who suffered at Medomsley as quickly as possible?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in Medomsley, in his constituency, and all those who work in it. He is right to press the Government for more action. I can reassure him that in the year ahead we will be spending £337 million on the criminal justice system, to address not only the covid pressure, but the other issues relating to criminal justice which will be welcome to hon. Members—the increase in police officers will inevitably have an effect on our criminal justice system. I look forward to engaging with him further on those important local issues in North West Durham.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

I am interested in the response regarding health and safety, and covid security, in the courts, because the level of covid infections among court staff and users is still rising, but the acting head of HMCTS told the Justice Committee,

“We have had to agree to disagree” with unions on the approach to risk assessments. Does the Justice Secretary accept that HMCTS’s tendency to,

“Try to do everything from the centre and the top in a prescriptive way”— those were his words—is simply not working? Can he explain why it is the only agency in the civil service that has not agreed a risk assessment template with the staff union, the Public and Commercial Services Union?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady is right to quote me, because I do believe in local initiative and I have seen it in action from HMCTS staff, who know the buildings, in which some of them have worked for many years, better than anybody. I take very much on board what she says. Of course, each court building is pretty different from the other; there is no set template and we all know they are pretty unique. The work that is done to make our courts safe is done in conjunction with Public Health England and Public Health Wales. I will consider the matter she raises further in more detail in order to satisfy myself that everything properly is being done.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I welcome the statement and the considerable investment, effort and energy that my right hon. and learned Friend has put into getting the courts up and running in a covid-safe environment. As a paediatrician, I am particularly concerned about the welfare of children, including in the justice system. Will he advise the House as to what he is doing to ensure that the youth justice system is prioritised and these cases are dealt with as quickly as possible?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her concern about children in the system. She will know that there are existing protocols applied by the courts to ensure that cases involving children are heard as early as possible, which is particularly important when it comes to the Crown court. The overall number of children in a secure setting, whether it is a young offenders institution or other secure accommodation, has continued to fall. It is now around 600. The numbers on remand remain about the same as they did before the pandemic but are proportionately higher because of the overall reduction in the sentenced population. We have been dealing as carefully as possible with the regime that is applied to ensure that young people are safe but that their frustrations when it comes to exercise and activity, which are natural, are dealt with. I am particularly interested in ensuring that education and skills training is improved during the pandemic, bearing in mind that in the first wave, apart from one institution, we were not able to run those programmes. I will keep her updated.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Transport)

As I understand it, the independent review of administrative law panel was due to report this year. I hope the Secretary of State can give us an update on that and on whether it has looked at the fact that the number of successful environmental claims for judicial review fell by two thirds from 2016 to 2019, despite a tougher test for granted permission to proceed to the final stage. Does he agree that it is really important that access to judicial review is protected, even during difficult times like these?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I can assure the hon. Lady that, as set out in the terms of reference for the independent review of administrative law, the principle of judicial review and its importance in our system is something that we all believe in. The Aarhus convention will continue to apply with regard to environmental cases. The review is, as she would expect, independent. It has embarked on a large call for evidence, which has been completed. I anticipate a report soon. I will then consider the matter carefully and come back with a full response, and I will keep the House updated on progress once I receive the initial report.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The people of Newport West are concerned that the courts recovery plan comes alongside the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s public sector pay freeze—a freeze that will hit court and tribunal staff very hard in their pockets. Can the Lord Chancellor explain to the people of Newport West why he thinks it is okay for the hidden heroes working in our justice system to do their very best to clear the backlog of cases without being given the fair and decent pay rise that they need and deserve?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady will know that we have had to make some very difficult choices, bearing in mind the unprecedented recourse to public funds placed upon us as a result of the covid emergency. We have worked as hard as we can to ensure that people stay in employment and that our economy is saved as a result of the necessary decisions we have had to make to protect public health. She will be glad to know that the Chancellor is targeting help at people who are on lower pay. There is particular provision for those who are earning under £24,000 a year, which will see an increase in their salary. There are existing increments as well. I am looking carefully at the overall impact on HMCTS staff, and I will do everything I can to ensure that, within the parameters set by the Treasury of necessity, those in most need will receive an increase in pay next year.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for all the work he has been doing to keep the justice system moving. I have two quick questions on employment tribunals. First, I know that the improvements in virtual proceedings have made a material difference to reducing the backlog, so what plans does he have to extend their roll-out? Secondly, I am hearing about a hidden problem, whereby a shortage of administrative staff in the tribunals is leading to applications and letters being processed very slowly, which is contributing to an overall delay. May I urge him to shine a spotlight on that issue when he looks at tribunals?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. It is important that Members ask just one question, because there are two debates to follow, and I am anxious that they are getting squeezed at the moment.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I will not repeat what I said with regard to investment and case levels in employment tribunals, but I assure my hon. Friend that the extra funding we have had in year means that we can recruit 1,600 extra staff. We are allocating more resources to recruit up to 1,800 staff. So far we have recruited 800, with 200 or so of them in training, and I hope that we can use those extra resources in the employment tribunal and other jurisdictions.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The biggest crime of all, of course, is the scale we see of criminal cases committed in the first place, which the failure in the court system is just exposing. Delaying justice is delaying restitution to victims and their families and denying defendants access to rehabilitation. What additional resources is the Lord Chancellor bringing forward to support victims over this time, but also defendants, particularly with their mental health?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady will be glad to know that the increase in victims funding continues, with an in-year increase of £15 million, which was separate from the covid funding that we have already allocated to victims groups. Next year, there will be a further £25 million increase in victim support services funding. We are working very closely with the Victims’ Commissioner and others to make sure that we are absolutely hitting the right spot when it comes to support. The new victims code has been introduced, which I believe will make things simpler and clearer for victims to know their rights. When it comes to the mental health of defendants, we are working at pace at the moment in looking at further liaison and diversion services. We have rolled out liaison and diversion services across England and Wales, but I think there is more we can do with regard to how that works to make sure that those in genuine mental health need are not caught up in the criminal justice system unnecessarily, and that we can divert them into more appropriate services.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

Can I join the Lord Chancellor in paying tribute to magistrate colleagues in court, particularly in Cheshire and Merseyside, who have continued to sit right through the pandemic? Could I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to give us an update on plans to extend the retirement age of magistrates, and also on the work that local advisory committees are doing to recruit new magistrates to the bench?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know takes a particular interest in this matter. He is right to pay tribute to the magistracy and, indeed, to highlight the recruitment campaign that is currently ongoing. I would urge members of the public who want to take part and to be part of the system to make such an application. On the retirement age, the consultation has now concluded. I am considering its findings, and I will report back to the House as soon as possible.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

Can I ask my right hon. and learned Friend when Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service plans to take on the operation of virtual remand hearings, as police forces return to their usual duties, and can I take this opportunity to thank Devon and Cornwall police for the exemplary job they have done over the course of this pandemic?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I readily join my hon. Friend in praising Devon and Cornwall police. She will be glad to know that the Home Secretary and I, who have joint responsibility for this, are working at pace to come up with practical solutions to allow the continuance of video remand hearings, particularly in court centres where there are a large number of people coming through the system and particular pressure. The ultimate problem will be solved by primary legislation, which I plan to introduce in the new year, but in the meantime we are working hard on practical solutions. I must stress to her that it is a joint solution between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Labour, Denton and Reddish

I welcome the statement, but we have seen reports of trials being listed for 2023 and, in some cases, court dates not given indefinitely. Does the Lord Chancellor agree with me that justice delayed is justice denied, and will he commit to working to reduce the backlog so that no case must wait more than a year, let alone until 2023?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Can I reassure him that, having looked into that particular issue, , thankfully no cases are actually being listed in 2023? We have listings into 2022, yes, but the bulk of cases on remand, as I have said, are going to be heard between now and the spring. We have cases out on bail that are going out to late 2021 or 2022. It is my intention, and indeed the intention of the Lord Chief Justice, with the funding that we have secured, to reach a situation where, as a result of that, we can start to eat into the backlog in the year ahead and make a difference for witnesses and victims.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Following on from the answer that my right hon. and learned Friend gave to our hon. Friend Andy Carter, will he tell us when he is going to make his response? I have a private Member’s Bill down for 29 January and it would be useful to have had a response from the Government, preferably before the end of this year, so that we can draft a Bill appropriately.

May I also ask my right hon. and learned Friend about the attitude of the Bar? We have read reports that barristers are planning to go on strike, because they do not like the idea of having to work longer hours. Will he condemn any such behaviour?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank my hon. Friend for taking such an interest in the magistrates’ retirement age. I undertake that I will work in a way that means we may dovetail our separate efforts with regard to his private Member’s Bill. I will come back to him before then.

With regard to my colleagues and friends at the Bar, a consultation is going on about covid operating hours to allow the courts to sit for two sittings a day in some court centres. I will await the outcome of the consultation—it is only right for me to do that—but may I appeal to the better angels of our nature on court recovery? Those at the Bar are doing a tremendous job—let us stay positive and stick together, and we will get this sorted.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

We have 30% fewer criminal legal aid firms than in 2010, and a quarter of those have disappeared in the past year alone. The criminal legal aid review is not due to be published until the end of next year. How many firms is the right hon. and learned Gentleman prepared to see disappear before he acts?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

We are acting. The second phase of the criminal legal aid review will be announced shortly, and the independent review can get on with its important work. I am acutely aware of the issues with regard to criminal defence solicitors—the problem predates 2010, I am afraid to tell the hon. Gentleman—but I want to ensure that we have a viable market and that solicitors and barristers are paid properly for the actual work that they are doing. That is why we need an update in the system.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

My right hon. and learned Friend will have heard me speak before about the Chris Donovan Trust and its amazing work in Carshalton and Wallington and elsewhere to encourage restorative justice, after Ray and Vi Donovan met their son Chris’s killers. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that, as we tackle the backlog in cases, restorative justice is offered as a matter of routine throughout the justice process?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I pay tribute to the Donovan Trust and my hon. Friend’s work with it. I am a big supporter of restorative justice, but it needs to be victim-led. It is important that any decisions with regard to it very much involve the victims first, rather than it becoming some sort of pro forma, which would be a negation of what restorative justice should be about. It needs to be meaningful, and that is what I believe will continue to happen right through this crisis and beyond.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities)

The Istanbul convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence imposes obligations on the state to ensure that investigations and judicial proceedings on all forms of violence covered by the convention are carried out without undue delay and that they take into consideration the rights of the victim at all stages of the criminal proceedings. The Scottish Government are working hard to ensure that, despite the pandemic, those obligations are complied with. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure me that the UK Government take the obligations equally seriously?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I refer the hon. Lady exactly to my response to Joanna Cherry, who asked a question in very similar terms. The hon. Lady is right to ask that, and we do take that obligation extremely seriously indeed and are working to meet it at all times.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

We have now taken an hour on the statement. Although I will try to get everyone in, that absolutely depends on short answers and short questions.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

One of the things that we have heard in the Justice Committee is of a reduction in violence in prisons as a result of the lockdown. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that we will look at what we can learn from a positive point of view from that fall?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend takes a keen interest in such matters. He is absolutely right to talk about a reduction in violence. Clearly, we need to look maturely and carefully at the overall impact of what has happened in our prisons. It is clear to me that we are working hard in this second wave to ensure purposeful activity and meaningful exercise, as well as more educational opportunities. Looking to get the balance right and ensuring that prisoners feel safe is our No. 1 priority.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

In 2016, the Conservatives pledged 10,000 extra prison places by 2020. They have managed only 200. Unsurprisingly, they recycled that old pledge last year by promising another 10,000, but the Ministry of Justice has informed us that the business case has not even been approved yet, so why should anyone believe this latest announcement that the Government will provide 18,000 new prison places?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the evidence. We have carried out the building of Wellingborough Prison on time and on budget, and despite covid work is beginning at Glen Parva. We have a very refined and standardised programme, which involves modern methods of construction. I am satisfying myself that those responsible are managing it in a professional way, and these numbers are additional numbers. It is the boldest and biggest prison building programme since Victorian times, and I am satisfied that we have the wherewithal to get this done, and that we can give confidence to those in the construction industry who want to get on with it and help us to build the prisons that we need for the future.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

I thank the Lord Chancellor and his team for all their efforts in dealing with the pressures that covid has brought on the system and with getting the system back up and running. May I reflect at this time, though, the great sense of frustration that my constituents in Dudley North feel when they see that, often, sentences do not seem to be fit for purpose? Quite often, sentences do not match the crime that has been committed. Will he look at reviewing some of the guidance issued to the judiciary, so that better informed decisions are made as and when it is appropriate?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course he knows that sentencing guidelines are a matter for the independent Sentencing Council, but he will be delighted to read the sentencing White Paper, which includes further measures to deal with the incarceration of serious violent sexual offenders for longer periods before release. The necessary legislation will follow in the new year to take a range of measures on serious crime, and I know that he and his constituents will be supporting them enthusiastically.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

The statement had the air of the Lord Chancellor congratulating himself in case no one else remembered to, but that may be somewhat premature. The criminal courts recovery plan claimed that 266 trials a week would be completed in October, but the actual figure was 160. The Justice Committee was told this week that we will not be getting back to pre-covid backlog figures at any time soon, nor should we be. Does not that sound more like complacency than competence?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

No, it certainly does not. The hon. Gentleman is, I am afraid, wrong when he talks about the figure of 266. What that was about was courtrooms. In fact, it was 250 courtrooms to deal with jury trials. We exceeded that target at the end of October. As I was explaining to my hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee, the overall figure with regard to effective trials, cracked trials and trials that are vacated because of a guilty plea acceptable to the Crown or a plea to the indictment, is now well in excess of 300 a week and is coming back to pre-covid levels. I am not complacent, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have been working daily on this issue and I care as much as everybody else about our courts and prison system, hence the urgency that we have placed upon the work that we are doing.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

Research from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service shows that a disproportionately large number of cracked trials in the criminal courts are due to late guilty pleas, with many defendants relying on the fact that key witnesses may be unable or unwilling to testify the longer that the pre-trial process takes, With this being a particular issue in cases of domestic and sexual violence, where victims are overwhelmingly women, can the Lord Chancellor please tell the House what equality impact assessment has taken place on the impact of delays in cases being heard?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

May I assure the hon. Lady that as a matter of day-to-day practice those issues are very much built in to the system, as is the need to prioritise those cases? She is absolutely right to talk about the problems about witnesses losing heart or victims themselves feeling let down by the system, and that is why we have continued to improve the way in which we use remote technology. The section 28 roll-out is a further measure that will support vulnerable witnesses and victims.

I have seen, not only over the past few years, but over many years in practice, a real sea change in how we deal with these sorts of cases. More needs to be done, and the hon. Lady will be glad to know about the increased investment in independent sexual violence advisers, which are a key element in supporting victims of crime right from the beginning of that early police investigation, because it is at that point that often things go horribly wrong for victims of sexual crime, and it is that work that we are going to be doing. We can talk further about this matter, and I would be happy to engage with her directly about it.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I am going to suspend the House for a few minutes in order to allow the safe exit of Members who are here and the safe entry of those who are about to come in.

Sitting suspended.

Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 2 September.)