Over a decade ago from 2004 to 2009 I was Chair of a committee that the Government at that time created which was the Surrey and Sussex Courts Board. It was a very effective group even though it did not have a lot of power. The group involved one Judge, two Magistrates, two Professional Court workers (such as Solicitors) and two members of the community. One of the very credible elements of the structure was that the Chair was a member of the community. We worked very closely with all of the elements of the Courts Services in Surrey and Sussex and we were able to help raise their concerns with the Government. We engaged with the Police forces and the Prison Services but sadly we were not well connected with MPs in Surrey and Sussex. I hope today that whatever the current structure is that MPs such as Caroline Ansell are connecting with the people managing the issues that she was referring to last week and indeed that the Courts Services are making contact with the MPs for strong calls. The comments raised last Thursday by Caroline are very important and while the appalling situation is certainly not new, it is vital that MPs do raise these issues. Sadly the Minister who responded was not Robert Buckland who is the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor although clearly Michael Ellis, the Attorney General is also an important Minister on this theme. Along with Caroline, Simon Baynes from Clywd South took part in the question and answer session. So the two of them began with this question and the response from Michael Ellis
Q: What steps his Department is taking to support the recovery of the criminal justice system as covid-19 restrictions are eased.
A: I frequently meet criminal justice partners to discuss this important issue. The covid-19 outbreak has been felt keenly by the criminal justice system. Recovery is a priority for this Government. I have been proud of the resilience that criminal justice agencies have shown. There is still more to do, but both the CPS and the Serious Fraud Office have been commended for their efforts at this difficult time. I thank them for continuing to support the delivery of justice.
And then the individual question and answer with Caroline was
CA: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his answer. In Sussex, we have a backlog of over 800 Crown court cases—one case is now approaching four years without coming to court—and a rising drop-out rate. The Nightingale court in Chichester is making a real difference, but we still need greater capacity and pace. Can he assure me that every avenue is being pursued to address this backlog, so that we can ensure justice for victims in Eastbourne and in Sussex?
ME: Yes, indeed. CPS South East in her region is working with all criminal justice partners to support the recovery activity within Sussex, including to ensure court capacity can be maximised and file quality improved—of course, the better the file quality, the speedier proceedings can follow. The latest levels of cases that I have seen flowing through the courts indicate that in recent weeks at least, outstanding case load in the Crown court has begun to reduce. However, there is still more to be done, and I should say at this point that there is no limit on the number of days that Crown courts can sit for the next fiscal year. That will enable Crown court judges to hold as many hearings as they safely can and as is physically possible, as we continue to recover from the pandemic.
It is clear that a great deal more is needed because long before COVID the provision for the Courts system was far too little and things were taking far too long. Now it is much worse and we need the Government to produce a much stronger financial situation. Let us hope that Caroline and the other Sussex MPs and indeed MPs in Surrey will raise their pressure onto Martin Ellis and Robert Buckland.