Criminal JusticeSpeeches

James Sunderland – 2023 Parliamentary Question on the Backlog of Court Cases

The parliamentary question asked by James Sunderland, the Conservative MP for Bracknell, in the House of Commons on 10 January 2023.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

What recent progress he has made on tackling the backlog of court cases.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

What recent progress he has made on tackling the backlog of court cases.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)

In the Crown court, the outstanding caseload has reduced from 60,400 in June 2021 to about 57,300 cases at the end of March 2022. However, the caseload has increased again, primarily due to the Criminal Bar Association action, which has now stabilised. We are taking action across the criminal justice system to bring down backlogs and improve waiting times for those who use our courts. That includes such things as increasing our judicial capacity and investing a significant amount of money across the criminal justice system.

James Sunderland

Could the Minister outline how he intends to reduce backlogs in the family court, in order to minimise the impact on families and children both in Bracknell and beyond?

Mike Freer

The issue of family courts is particularly pressing because of the impact on families and children. That is why we are investing a significant amount of funding by increasing the number of fee-paid judges, sitting days and judges who are able to sit, and we continue to invest significant sums in family mediation vouchers, to keep families and children out of the court system.

Peter Aldous

The backlog in court cases is causing enormous personal distress and anguish. My constituent originally in 2018 reported an historical rape. The trial has now been postponed four times and is currently scheduled for this June. I shall write to my hon. Friend providing full details of the situation, but can he leave no stone unturned in eliminating the backlog very quickly, as in such historical cases, justice delayed really can mean justice denied?

Mike Freer

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. While I cannot talk about a specific case, the allocation and listing of cases is a judicial responsibility, and I can reassure him that the judiciary continue to work to prioritise cases involving custody time limits, as well as those involving vulnerable complainants and witnesses, domestic abuse and serious sex cases. The judiciary are incredibly sensitive to the need to ensure that the most vulnerable complainants and victims get their day in court as fast as possible.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)

The civil legal aid review finally announced last week is an admission that cuts brought in by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 have left the civil courts, which the Minister did not even mention, in a dysfunctional state, with a third of providers out of business and longer and longer delays in proceedings. The timetable for the review takes its implementation beyond the general election, which is another abdication of responsibility for the chaos in the courts that this Government have caused. Should they not bring forward either the review or the general election?

Mike Freer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Reform of all parts of the justice system is a priority, but within the spending envelope that we are operating in, we have to spend the money where we can get the best return for our investment. If he has some serious options for how we could spend the money better, I am all ears.

Dame Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)

Like the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), I have seen extraordinary situations with cases of serious sexual assault where the court case has been listed three years after the attack, in one case, with the victim saying, “I just want to give up and get on with my life.” This is a real challenge. Will the Minister outline what he is doing to get more judges in place, which is one of the brakes on this? When the Public Accounts Committee looked at this, we concluded on the evidence that, even with the interventions he has outlined, the Ministry will only be back on target from where it was with the backlog before covid by about 2024-25.

Mike Freer

The hon. Lady raises an important point. There are a variety of reasons why cases can be delayed. It is not just about the availability of the judiciary; sometimes it is the availability of defence and prosecution. There is a particular focus on trying to improve the number of cases that do not come forward because they are incomplete and not ready, and there is a massive campaign to improve the number of available sitting days and courts, but the most important thing is the massive recruitment of 1,000 judges for our criminal justice system.[Official Report, 11 January 2023, Vol. 725, c. 8MC.]

Mr Speaker

I call Sir Julian Lewis.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear!

Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)

Thank you, Mr Speaker; it is kind of colleagues to respond in that way.

Some months ago, the Government took the welcome decision to raise the retirement age for justices of the peace from 70 to 75. However, the question of reinstatement for those previously caught by the 70 age limit has been left, I believe, to local regions, rather than a wider cohort being allowed to go back on the bench, even if they are willing to travel. Can more flexibility be put into this system, so that people can be reinstated under those circumstances?

Mike Freer

It is my understanding that this issue is subject to the oversight of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. I understand that it is very firmly on their radar and that they will use their discretion as appropriate.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab)

Has the Minister seen the Law Society’s five-point plan to get rid of the backlog, including investing in buildings and staff and properly funding legal aid? If he has not, will he sit down with the Law Society? These people are at the heart of our justice system.

Mike Freer

I have seen the plan and I have sat down with the Law Society. The Lord Chancellor and I continue to have fruitful discussions to address the particular issues that the Law Society has raised.

Mr Speaker

We now come to the shadow Minister.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)

It is always someone else’s fault. I have listened to the Minister trying to talk up progress, but both he and I know it is not good enough. I can understand the anxiety in Government over the failure to make any real impact—at the current rate of progress, the backlog will continue into the next Parliament, if not beyond. The Minister will agree that it is bad for victims, staff and defendants and, above all, is a failure of justice. What will he do to reassure our dedicated court staff that he will get the disastrous common platform IT system sorted out? Will he confirm how much extra taxpayers’ cash is being thrown at the system to get it right?

Mike Freer

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the common platform is not a disaster. In fact, I have taken a specific interest in ensuring the roll-out is appropriate and that users are actually engaged.

Alex Cunningham

Have you spoken to the staff?

Mike Freer

I have spoken to staff, who said that yes, there are teething problems—that has been admitted—but they are fully committed. They understand that the common platform is a good programme and will work. We are listening to the staff to make sure it works. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. If he wishes to revert to legacy systems that will collapse and make things even worse, he is welcome to make that argument.