As I made clear in the Parliament last week, in the “Justice: recover, renew, transform” debate, I recognise the impact that delays and uncertainty have on all those who are involved in criminal court processes, including on victims’ mental and physical health. That is why the Government will ensure that our justice system takes account of the interests of victims, witnesses and, indeed, those who are accused of offences as the backlog in cases is dealt with.
Like all our justice partners, I remain committed to addressing the current court backlog, which is a consequence of the Covid pandemic, assisted by the additional £50 million of funding that we have provided to support recovery. On top of existing funding for victims organisations, we have committed to providing an additional £5 million this year to support front-line services that support victims of violence against women and girls, to deal with the outstanding demand that has built up during the pandemic.
The latest quarterly criminal court statistics show that the backlog has more than doubled, and Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service modelling estimates that it will not be cleared until March 2025.
The resulting pain and mental health problems for victims are horrifying. We know that the backlog of domestic abuse trials in courts such as that in Aberdeen has caused victims untold anguish.
SCTS modelling states that expanding trial court capacity to 25 could clear the High Court backlog by March 2023. The cabinet secretary’s motion in the debate last week said that there was a need to address the backlog, so will he commit to making that expansion?
We have already announced and implemented a number of changes that seek to reduce the backlog and stop it increasing, not least of which are the remote juries that we have established in locations across the country, which I mentioned last week. The £50 million that I mentioned previously will be used—and is being used now—to ensure that we can scale up significantly the sheriff courts in September this year. That should further help to address the backlog.
We have seen almost the same number of solemn and criminal cases taking place as took place prior to the pandemic, which has required a huge amount of effort by the partners—Liam Kerr mentioned the SCTS, but others have been involved as well. We are very grateful to them for that.
It is in all our interests to minimise the backlog, and I hope to work with Liam Kerr to achieve that over the coming years.
An accused person may not be held in custody for trial for more than 140 days unless the trial has commenced, but that period may be extended by a judge on cause shown. Prior to the pandemic, there were significant delays to High Court trials. Is the cabinet secretary satisfied that the use of cause shown is a high enough test to prevent court delays, or will that become meaningless if it is going to take such a length of time to get back on track? Will the cabinet secretary make a full assessment of the impact of delays on victims—especially victims of rape and serious sexual assaults?
I am happy to come to the chamber at any time to give updates on the extent of the situation in the courts and the impact that that might be having on victims. Members can, of course, propose questions, motions and debates in the Parliament for that.
I acknowledge that remand, in particular, has been an issue because of the backlogs that we have seen. That causes concern and we want to take early initiatives to address that, in addition to the ones that I have already mentioned. However, I am happy to answer future questions on the subject from Pauline McNeill.
To be perfectly honest, I want to get a bit more information about the specific question that Pauline McNeill asked and to find out from those at the front end of the system what their experience has been. However, I am happy to work with Pauline McNeill on those issues.