David Lammy – 2021 Speech on Serious Criminal Cases Backlog

The speech made by David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, in the House of Commons on 20 January 2021.

We all know the numbers. The backlog of criminal cases in the Crown court has grown to more than 54,000. Including the magistrates courts, it has reached more than 457,000 cases. Serious criminal cases are being delayed by up to four years. Convictions are at by far their lowest this decade. Estimates show that the current scale of increase in the backlog would take 10 years to clear at pre-pandemic rates.

Numbers do not tell the whole story. Behind criminal cases, there are victims: victims of rape, robbery, domestic abuse, and violent assault. Each of those victims is being denied the speedy justice that our society owes them. It has been repeated many times, but it is true: justice delayed is justice denied. This is not just the case because of the pain that delays cause victims and the wrongly accused—it is because delays to justice can affect the verdict.

On Tuesday, four criminal justice watchdogs for England and Wales warned of “grave concerns” about the impact of court backlogs. Victims and witnesses may avoid the justice system entirely because of the delays. Witnesses may be unable to recall events properly many years after the event. As a responsible Opposition, we accept that the pandemic has caused unprecedented challenges for the justice system. However, we do not accept the Government’s presentation of the backlog as a crisis that has resulted only from coronavirus. Before the pandemic, the Crown court backlog stood at 39,000 cases.

That figure was the result of sustained attacks on the justice system by successive Conservative Governments: an entire decade of court closures, cuts and reduced sitting days. Blackfriars Crown court was sold off by the Government in December 2019. It is now sitting empty, but it is being rented out as a film set by the developer for a new series of “Top Boy”. The Minister said “recovery”, but meanwhile the Government are paying through the nose for Nightingale courts a stone’s throw away.

Six hundred court staff, judges, lawyers and jurors have tested positive for covid-19 in the past seven weeks. A pilot scheme of lateral flow tests has now been authorised at only two courts in London and Manchester. A pilot scheme is not good enough, and neither is the plexiglass. Why have lateral flow tests not been implemented across the court system? The Minister knows that that is a serious problem and that we are a long way from recovery. Can he tell the House why the pitiful 19 Nightingale courts that he has managed to deliver fall so short of the 200 that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service said were needed? Can he tell the House why lateral flow tests are not being trialled across the whole country? After 11 years of incompetence and cuts, will he admit that his Government failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining?