The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Robert Buckland)
Today I would like to update the House on how the Government are protecting the public and providing justice for victims following the Opposition day debate of 9 June 2021.
Impact of covid-19
The covid-19 pandemic has had a truly unprecedented effect on our courts system. Bringing people safely into buildings for trials and hearings—especially jury trials—has been challenging. That is why we have done so much to keep delivering justice in these difficult times.
The Government are committed to getting justice firing on all cylinders by ramping up our work to enable judges to safely hold as many hearings as possible over the coming year. In the Crown Court, disposals continue to exceed receipts and we have seen the outstanding caseload stabilise at around 60,000, and hopefully turn a corner, while our outstanding cases in the magistrates’ court are now at the lowest level since the pandemic began.
We will continue to maximise capacity across the system, reopening 60 courtrooms by September 2021, extending 32 Nightingale courtrooms until March 2022, giving judges the option to open courtrooms for longer—sitting a session in the morning and another in the afternoon—and the flexibility to conduct non-trial work, like pre-trial preparation hearings, remotely. We have lifted the limit on sitting days in the Crown Court this year, enabling us to maximise the use of the courts estate, and every available judge. All this activity taken together will help get more cases heard, more quickly, so that there is timely access to justice.
How we supported victims over the last year and through the pandemic
While the impacts of covid-19 on the courts have been profound, supporting victims to seek justice remains a top priority. We are acutely aware of the risk of victims dropping out of the justice process and are monitoring the impact of covid-19. In recognition of the impact of covid-19 on victims, the Ministry of Justice established the Victim and Witness Silver Command Group in March 2020 in order to identify and assess developing risks and issues that may have an impact on victims of crime, including in their journey through the criminal justice system. This group continues to meet on a fortnightly basis and its comprehensive membership consists of representatives from across Government, criminal justice agencies, external stakeholders, and the third sector.
This year has seen record investment across government of over £300 million in specialist victim services and we have made over £92 million available since the start of the pandemic to ensure victims had access to critical support services, including counselling and advice. Independent sexual and domestic violence advisers are a key component in support through the criminal justice system, which is why we have made a £27 million investment over two years, resulting in the recruitment of nearly 700 new posts, an increase of 44% on existing provision.
Earlier this year we also published a new victims’ code focused on 12 key rights for all victims of crime. The new code is the culmination of two years of extensive work, including hearing from victims and the groups that support them, to ensure that we have a clear and comprehensive framework for victims’ rights. This vital work has laid the necessary foundations for effective legislation in this area, and it is our intention to proceed without delay.
Alongside this, the Government have demonstrated their continued commitment to tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG) and domestic abuse. We have published new VAWG and domestic abuse strategies this year to help drive a step-change in the response to these crimes, and we have committed to undertaking a review of sentencing in domestic homicide cases to understand sentencing practice and consider whether there is a need for change. These build on our landmark Domestic Abuse Act, which received Royal Assent in April, and is being brought into force as soon as possible. Measures brought into force since the debate on 9 June include the offence of threatening to disclose private sexual photographs and films; extending the extraterritorial jurisdiction of England and Wales in relation to certain violent and sexual offences; ensuring those who are homeless as a result of domestic abuse and are eligible for local authority accommodation have priority need status; and also to enable a pilot using polygraph tests to protect domestic abuse victims. The vast majority of the remaining measures in the Act will be in force by spring 2022.
How the Government have dealt with rape and serious sexual violence cases through the pandemic
While criminal justice agencies and the judiciary are prioritising serious cases, including rape, to provide certainty to victims and defendants, reducing the outstanding caseload will take several years. We are working to ensure that these cases will continue to be prioritised by all involved while dealing with the impact of the pandemic.
The Government have long recognised that far too few victims of rape are seeing justice and that more must be done to support them to take their case through the criminal justice system. The recently published rape review sets out a robust programme of work to improve how the criminal justice system responds to rape—increasing the number of cases reaching court to 2016 levels, reducing the number of victims withdrawing from the process and ultimately putting more rapists behind bars.
Last year we passed legislation to ensure that serious sexual and violent offenders sentenced to a standard determinate sentence (SDS) of over seven years serve at least two thirds of their sentence in custody. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will extend this change to more offenders. Those sentenced to an SDS between four and seven years for certain serious sexual or violent offences—where that offence attracts a maximum penalty of life—which includes rape, will serve two thirds of their sentence in custody instead of half. The Government are committed to driving this agenda to give victims confidence in the system.
Wider support for victims
We want to continue transforming the experience of victims in the criminal justice system today. That is why the Government have committed to passing a victims’ law—to put the rights in the victims’ code into statute. This will help to guarantee victims they will be seen, heard and helped at every point in the justice process.
We will consult not only on the rights of victims, but on the provision of community-based domestic abuse and sexual violence services, as well as a statutory underpinning for the roles of independent sexual and domestic violence advisers to ensure that victims receive a high standard of care.
I look forward to setting out a timetable for bringing the victims’ law on to the statute books and working with victims, campaigners, and Members of Parliament from across the political divide to make a success of this landmark piece of legislation.
We know there is further to go, and we should not underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead of us. Victims, witnesses and defendants are still waiting too long and we need to take action to address this.
This year has been incredibly difficult in the courts, as it has in so many areas. But through a monumental collective effort the system is recovering.