Crown Courts: Outstanding Cases - Question

– in the House of Lords at 12:39 pm on 15th April 2021.

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Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat 12:39 pm, 15th April 2021

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce the backlog of outstanding cases in the Crown Courts.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Beith, who is regrettably attending a family funeral. Given that physical accommodation has at last been made available for Nightingale courts—

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, in relation to the Question posed by the noble Lord on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Beith, we spent more than a quarter of £1 billion on recovery in the last financial year, making court buildings safe, rolling out new technology for remote hearings and opening 60 Nightingale courtrooms. Although there is further to go, this has made a difference. In the Crown Courts, we are completing around 2,000 cases each week, which is the same as before the pandemic.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, my apologies. Given that physical accommodation has at last been made available for Nightingale courts in football grounds, hotels, theatres and even the ballroom in Chester Town Hall, how are these being manned by trained court staff? Given the fact that very few have custody facilities, to what extent are serious cases being held back and periods of remand in custody thereby lengthened?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, at the Nightingale venues, we use experienced court staff who are trained to deal with the type of work heard on site. While Nightingales deal with non-custodial cases, by taking this work away from the main court estate, custody cases can be heard in our specialist facilities faster than would otherwise be possible. To expand further our capacity to hear complex cases, we have also modified around 70 courtrooms to increase the capability to hear multi-handed trials of up to 10 defendants. In addition, work has begun on a super-courtroom in Manchester, which will further increase capacity for multi-handed cases. For those on remand in custody, our systems show that the majority of such cases had their first hearing in February 2021, and those who have pleaded not guilty have been listed for trial prior to September 2021. I acknowledge the courtesy shown by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, by intimating to my department the terms of his supplementary question in order that a specific answer could be given to this important point.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, the Minister must be well aware that this problem has been going on for much longer than just the pandemic. The big problem is the Government’s savage cuts to court processes. The solution is not Nightingale courts but better funding. Will the Government do that?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, prior to Covid, the outstanding case load in the Crown Court was 39,000, which is well within the range of 33,000 to 55,000 over the last decade. At its lowest point, it was even as low as 33,000, in 2018-19. Immediately before the pandemic, the Government were increasing sitting days in the criminal courts to address rising demand.

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Conservative

My Lords, on 25 January, I tabled a Written Question to my noble friend Lord Wolfson regarding the closing, selling and standing empty of courts. My noble friend’s swift, detailed reply was that around 110 had been closed since 2015 but 21 new Nightingale courts, which have just been mentioned, had been made. Have these courts had what the Minister feels is the desired effect of reducing the backlog in the Crown Court as well?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend for her question. The recovery steps taken have made a difference, allowing us to complete around 2,000 cases each week—the same figure as before the pandemic. I assure my noble friend that the decisions taken to close courts were not, and are not, taken lightly; they are taken alongside public consultation.

Photo of Lord Singh of Wimbledon Lord Singh of Wimbledon Crossbench

My Lords, the Covid pandemic has led to a surge of cases awaiting trial in the Crown Court. While the setting up of special Nightingale courts to help clear the backlog is welcome, delays to effective hearings are leading to additional stress and anxiety, particularly for vulnerable victims. Does the Minister agree that, in looking to greater efficiency, we need to look harder at cutting the considerable time spent on cases that do not move to trial?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, we are keenly aware of the need to improve timeliness for both defendants and victims, and to mitigate the impact of delays on complainers and witnesses in such cases. To that extent, I agree with what the noble Lord asked in his question.

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour

My Lords, in a Written Question on 17 December, my honourable friend Alex Norris asked the Secretary of State for Justice

“what assessment he has made of trends in the level of defendants offending while awaiting delayed court dates.”

On 15 January, the dismissive one-sentence reply was:

“We do not hold any data on offences committed by offenders.”

Is data about the number of offences committed on bail no longer held on the police national computer? Why have this Government apparently lost interest in trends of the criminal behaviour of offenders awaiting trial?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, I repeat the answer given previously: the department does not collect specific data on the level of offending by defendants on court bail. However, as the noble Lord is aware—and as Members present may not be aware—the commission of a crime on bail is itself an aggravation, which will be reflected in the sentence.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

My Lords, the recent Constitution Committee report pointed out that, because of delays to the courts reform programme, improvements to IT systems had not been sufficiently implemented by the time of the pandemic, meaning that remote hearings relied on antiquated systems and participants in the criminal and family courts in particular struggled with virtual hearings. How do the Government intend to supply adequate investment in training in IT while also guaranteeing fairness for all through physical participation for those for whom remote hearings are not a solution?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, we acknowledge that, in many cases, participation by way of remote hearings is valuable for people in such positions. None the less, we also appreciate that it is not appropriate for all such people, whether they be witnesses or complainers in cases.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted that the Nightingale courts are being expanded. Can my noble friend comment on any plans that the Government might have to extend the serving period for, or bring back, retired judges so that we can deal with the backlog more rapidly—perhaps by extending court hours—and deal with ongoing ageism in the workplace, which seems to write off older people when they are too young?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, prior to retirement, judges below the High Court are already able to have their appointments extended on an annual basis up to the age of 75 where there is a business need. After retirement, salaried judges are already able to be authorised to sit beyond the current retirement age of 70, on an ad hoc basis, up to the age of 75. We are using our fee-paid judges, as well as salaried judges who wish to sit following retirement, to ensure that we maximise judicial capacity.

In answer to the second part of my noble friend’s question, we are looking at more flexible working. Temporary Covid operating hours have been piloted at seven Crown Court sites to test whether even more could be done, and we are looking at the extension of the working day as a short-term—I emphasise “short-term”—tool and aid to managing recovery. Magistrates’ courts also sat on at least 100 additional Saturday courts per month between September and December.

Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour

My Lords, justice delayed is justice denied. Is not the root cause of the delays the reduced finance that the Justice Department too speedily agreed to long before the pandemic? Have the Government given up on the alternatives that I have canvassed to speed up trials—for example, a reduction in the size of juries or trials of less serious offences decided by judges alone, with the consent of the defendant?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, I repeat the figure that I gave earlier: over a quarter of £1 billion has been spent on a range of measures to increase Crown Court capacity. With respect to the additional measures that the noble and learned Lord outlined, I regret that I do not have to hand details of consultation and discussions, but I undertake to write to him on behalf of my noble friend Lord Wolfson in the Ministry of Justice.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this mountainous backlog impacts most upon victims, witnesses to crime and members of the public waiting for years to see justice done? Does he also accept that this backlog began well before Covid and is directly because of this Government’s savage funding cuts in courts and tribunals and even more punitive cuts in legal aid? Is it not high time that the Conservatives started investing in increased court capacity, qualified staff and victim support instead of cuts, cuts and still more cuts, benefiting only criminals?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, I do not accept the adjectival premises on which the noble Lord’s questions were based. I refer to my earlier answers about the spending that has been identified in relation to these matters.