Courts and Tribunals: Recovery

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:50 pm on 3rd December 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

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?