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‘We did not panic’: minister praises courts backlog progress

By Monidipa Fouzder >>

(8 February 2022)

Ministers insist they are making good progress in tackling the court backlog despite coming under heavy criticism from opposition MPs today over delays in the justice system.

Justice minister James Cartlidge told the Commons chamber this morning that cases in the magistrates’ court were close to reaching pre-pandemic levels while the Crown court backlog has fallen from 61,000 cases in June 2021 to 58,700 cases in November 2021. ‘I can confirm that in the next financial year, we expect to get through 20% more Crown court cases than we did in the year previous to Covid,’ he added.

Labour’s James Daly asked how the department was maximising use of the current court estate and the government’s view on the continued role of Nightingale courts to address the backlog.

Cartlidge said 32 Crown Nightingale courtrooms have been extended until the end of March and individual Nightingale courtrooms are being extended on a case-by-case basis.

‘The existing estate in our courts is where the custody cell capacity is,’ he added. ‘We need that to come back into use. Two key decisions were made to help us bring those rooms back into use. First of all last summer, we came out of lockdown at the earliest opportunity while others were suggesting we should remain in lockdown. This Christmas, we didn’t panic, we didn’t lock down, we listened to the data. If we had gone with the recommendation from the Labour party, the administration in Wales, we’d have had 2m social distancing back in our Crown court rooms. Fortunately, I spoke to the counsel general in Wales. They took measures to be more flexible and were able to keep the courts open, which is why the backlog is now falling.’

Labour’s Steve Reed pointed out that the average time between a victim reporting a rape and the case coming to trial has reached a record high of 1,000 days due to the backlog. He also highlighted concerns that giving magistrates greater sentencing powers could worsen the backlog.

‘Is the government making a bad situation worse because they don’t have a clue what they’re doing or because they’ve gone soft on crime?’ he asked.

Cartlidge replied: ‘We’re not going to take any lectures on being soft on crime from a party which voted against our measures to toughen sentences for serious sexual and violent offences [in the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill].’

Ministers were also asked what they were doing to address delays in the family courts. Labour’s Stephen Timms said families in East London are facing a minimum seven-month wait for a hearing.

Cartlidge said the government and senior judiciary are working closely to increase sitting days across the East London cluster. He added that a Nightingale court was created in Petty France and additional courts are being used at Stratford Magistrates’ Court and the Royal Courts of Justice.

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)