1.We took evidence from the Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) and its executive agencies, HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and HM Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS) on the challenges facing the justice system, including courts, prisons and probation services.
2.The pandemic has very substantially impacted on the operation of the justice system, and therefore on the lives of victims, witnesses, defendants, people in prison and those being supervised by the probation service. During the first national lockdown in March 2020, HMCTS closed all court rooms and suspended all jury trials. Since then, many courts have reopened, but national guidelines for social distancing mean they are unable to hold as many hearings as previously. This has meant significant delays to those waiting for access to justice. Managing the pandemic in prisons has led to restrictive regimes, and probation services have also been impacted, with large reductions in face-to-face supervision and the suspension of accredited programmes and unpaid work that some prisoners need to complete as part of their sentencing requirements.
3.Alongside the substantial challenge of supporting the justice system to recover from the impact of the pandemic, the Ministry and its agencies are managing a number of ambitious reform and change programmes. The Ministry received a 3.3% increase in funding in the 2020 spending review after years of deep cuts to its funding, which comes against a backdrop of increased demand across the whole system, pressure on frontline staff and inadequate data to support management and planning.
4.The Ministry and its agencies are currently managing 15 projects on the Government’s Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP) – a list of government projects that are typically large scale, novel and delivered by multiple stakeholders. These include the court reform programme, currently in its final stages, the building of four new prisons, and the unification of probation services in June 2021. The Ministry’s new accounting officer told us that these programmes represent a large amount of change across the system that she and other senior leaders at HMCTS and HMPPS must manage.
5.The Ministry acknowledged that each of the change programmes carries a significant amount of risk. We welcome the Ministry’s renewed focus on ensuring it has enough scrutiny of these programmes and ensuring it has the right capability. We note however that it was unable to set out its priorities for managing such complex change alongside recovering from the pandemic and meeting the expected increase in demand in courts, prisons and probation services as a result of government’s plans for an extra 20,000 police officers and new sentencing reforms.
6.The Ministry and its agencies welcomed the extra funding received in the 2020 Spending Review, which included a multi-year commitment of £4 billion for new prison places and £119 million to support recovery from the pandemic. However, they recognised that this was against a backdrop of deep funding cuts over many years, and that they would have to demonstrate progress in order to secure further funding from HM Treasury in 2021.
7.The Ministry and HMPPS have a duty of care to those in prisons. We have reported in the past that improving the mental health of prisoners is a difficult and complex task, and that it is essential to reducing reoffending and ensuring that those who are released from prison can rebuild their lives in the community. The need to manage the risks to prisoners and prison staff resulting from the pandemic has meant that temporary restrictive regimes have been in place for many months. This has meant prisoners spending longer times in cells, the stoppage of family visits, and suspension of education programmes and other purposeful activity. This has significantly exacerbated the existing mental health challenges that prisoners face.
8.HMPPS’ data shows that during 2020, there were 67 self-inflicted deaths in custody, and 58,879 self-harm incidents in the 12 months to September 2020. We heard from HMPPS that while these levels are high, they are showing signs of declining. The situation remains particularly alarming for female prisoners. We welcomed HMPPS’ work to set up a taskforce to address issues facing female prisoners directly, including one-to-one counselling and initiatives to maintain family contact. HMPPS recognised that continuing to learn lessons from how it has managed the impact of the pandemic on prisoners’ wellbeing is critical to its long-term work to prioritise and support prisoner mental health. Its commitment to draw on the expertise of others, including the Samaritans and CLINKS, is encouraging. It has also committed to bettering its understanding of the number of prison staff attending training specifically focused on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of prisoners.
9.The pandemic has had a significant impact on the court system, exacerbating an already growing backlog in cases, particularly in the criminal courts. Stakeholders are concerned that it could take years to clear the backlog that has now accumulated. The effects on the lives of defendants, witnesses and victims are acute; we heard from a vulnerable constituent how waiting four years to access justice had severely impacted their wellbeing and recovery. The Ministry committed to shorten these waiting times and told us that it was putting £40 million in funding towards supporting victims, including providing independent advisers in the cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence. It recognised that more needs to be done to ensure the existence of these services is clearly communicated to victims.
10.Government has also committed additional funding to support the court system to reduce the backlogs, including by making court rooms safe through the installation of plexiglass and introducing 40 Nightingale courts, with plans to increase this by a further 20 courts. It has also brought back into service some court rooms it closed through its court reform programme. The Ministry told us this increase in capacity was beginning to show some results, particularly in magistrates’ courts, but the overall situation remained very challenging. Despite having 290 rooms that can be used for jury trials, the Ministry told us that trials involving more than one defendant (“multi-hander trials”) are proving particularly difficult to accommodate, but that work was in progress to address these challenges. It also committed to maximising the number of sitting days for judges this financial year. Despite us pressing the Ministry for clarity, it was unable to tell us what level of backlog it was planning for. The Ministry could say at least that it aims to reduce the backlog to lower than pre-pandemic levels, but those levels were already unacceptably high.
11.The Ministry appears to place significant focus on the ability of technology to manage the increased demand on the court system, through remote hearings and other technology-based initiatives it says will drive up productivity. It told us that user feedback for video hearings in probate and the family court have been very positive. But these technologies could be more difficult to implement in other parts of the court system and may yet take up to 2022 to roll out completely. The Ministry and HMCTS acknowledged that more work still needs to be done to fully understand the impact remote hearings have on user satisfaction and justice outcomes.
2 Qq 46, 70, 71
3 Qq 33, 66
4 HM Government, Spending Review 2020, CP 330, November 2020, page 66, paras 6.30 – 6.31
5 Qq 68, 69
6 Committee of Public Accounts, Mental health in prisons, Eighth Report of Session 2017–19, HC 400, 13 December 2017
7 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Aggregate report on Short scrutiny visits 21 April – & July 2020, July 2020
8 Letter from HM Prison and Probation Service, 9 February 2021
9 Qq 41–45
10 Letter from HM Prison and Probation Service, 9 February 2021, page 6
11 Qq 6, 31, 32
12 Q 5
13 Qq 6, 7, 2–25
14 Qq 5, 8, 18–20