Courts and Tribunals: Recovery

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

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Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 12:50 pm, 3rd December 2020

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.