Criminal Justice System: Covid-19 Recovery

Attorney General – in the House of Commons on 20th May 2021.

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Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott Conservative, Sevenoaks

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service's contribution to the criminal justice system’s covid-19 recovery.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking with partner agencies in the criminal justice system to reduce the backlog of cases resulting from the covid-19 outbreak.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service’s contribution to the criminal justice system’s covid-19 recovery.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Attorney-General

I am pleased that inspections in both June 2020 and March 2021 found that the CPS responded well to the challenges caused by covid-19. Those inspections were by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. The CPS has made a significant contribution to supporting the criminal justice system during an exceptionally difficult time, working closely with partners. I am proud of prosecutors and staff who have continued to deliver their essential services, both virtually and in person where necessary, throughout the pandemic.

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott Conservative, Sevenoaks

I thank the Attorney General for his answer and for his welcome focus on domestic violence, which he demonstrated throughout this Question Time. Will he reassure me that the Crown Prosecution Service will do all it can to prioritise cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the backlog, as those types of cases have a higher drop-off rate the longer the delay?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Attorney-General

Yes, tackling domestic abuse, as I have been saying, is a key focus of the Government. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the CPS south-east region, which covers her area, identifies domestic abuse cases, working with the Courts and Tribunal Service, to ensure that they can be listed before the court as a priority and that trial dates can be brought forward to avoid any unnecessary delay. She is right to focus on the issue. Work is being done in support of her point.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

While a defendant typically has legal representation following the reporting of a rape, the victim has to wait months before an independent advocate becomes available. Even then, the independent sexual violence advocate is not permitted to go into the court to support a woman at the time she desperately needs it. First, why is there a three to six-month wait for an advocate to become available to deeply stressed individuals who have been assaulted? Secondly, will the Government undertake to review the situation in which the advocate, who is meant to support the victim, has to stay outside the courtroom? It is ridiculous!

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Attorney-General

As the hon. Lady may know, a rape review is due to be published soon. Together with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service introduced an interim charging protocol in April 2020 to prioritise the most important cases, to which she is referring, through the criminal justice system. Those are high-harm cases, including rape and domestic abuse. I am proud of the CPS’s response. I am sure she recognises that the exigencies of the pandemic have affected backlogs to a significant extent in many areas of public and private life, but a huge amount is being done to ameliorate that backlog. Particular priority is being given to the sorts of cases to which she is referring.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

What learning will the CPS take forward from its pandemic response to increase resilience in the future?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Attorney-General

One of the things that we will be looking at is the cloud video platform. The CPSI report published recently recognised the flexibility and adaptability of the CPS in responding to the pandemic. The cloud video platform was enabling around 20,000 virtual hearings a week, and post pandemic I am sure we will be looking at that among many other things.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

If the Government are serious about tackling the backlog of court cases, will the Attorney General explain why his colleague in the Ministry of Justice has halved the amount spent annually on recorded sitting days in the past five years, from £19 million to £9.5 million?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Attorney-General

I have actually discussed the issue of recorders very recently with the senior judiciary. The Ministry of Justice has recently arranged for an unlimited amount of sitting days—I think I am right in saying—so that the judiciary and the courts system can keep up with all the work that is going on. That is a very generous arrangement to allow the courts to make dramatic progress, and that includes recorders and the judiciary generally.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

Although it is important that partner agencies in the criminal justice system do everything possible to eliminate the delays caused by covid-19, some of these problems stretch back much further than the start of the pandemic. In 2017 we reformed pre-charge bail to introduce time limits on how long suspects could be on bail before being charged. That came after the terrible treatment of some individuals, including Paul Gambaccini, who was held on bail for a year without being charged. Today, a number of people are still being bailed for a shocking length of time—years on end. I currently have a case where the National Crime Agency has kept an individual on bail for almost six years. That has ruined her life. The Government are now seeking to undo even the inadequate protections in the Police and Crime Act 2017 with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Will the Attorney General tell the House what the Government will do to protect against these injustices in coming legislation?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis The Attorney-General

I thank my right hon. Friend for the point he makes. He thinks of the defence position, and is right to do so, and I am very grateful to him for raising it. I recognise how distressing delays can be, both to defendants and, of course, to victims, but these have been unprecedented times.

On the case my right hon. Friend refers to, decisions on whether to impose or extend pre-charge bail are operational and are not therefore something that Ministers can interfere with, but he makes a powerful point. It is right that those decisions are independent of Government, and it is important to note that the length of pre-charge bail is separate from the length of the investigation. There may be particular circumstances that cause concomitant delays in individual cases that are outwith my immediate knowledge or ability to intervene, and nor would it be appropriate for me to do so, but I recognise the point he makes. If he wishes to write to me about that individual case, we can certainly forward it to the relevant authority.