One of the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic is the backlog in vital public services. We have seen incredible improvements over the last few months across sectors, but we know that some essential services are still under pressure.
Ministers have recognised that coronavirus has put huge strain on the court system, and I have been consistently pushing for more action to bring court backlogs down in Kent specifically. In addition to raising this on the floor of the House of Commons, I have also met with the Minister personally to ensure that he is aware of the local challenges we are facing in Kent – and to make the case for a Nightingale Court for the County.
I am incredibly grateful to Ministers in the Ministry of Justice who have engaged with me constructively, recognising the seriousness of court backlogs and taking decisive action. 60 Nightingale courtrooms have now been established nationally, £250 million has been spent on improving the justice system, and 1,600 extra staff have been deployed.
Ministers have also ensured that domestic violence protection orders have been prioritised throughout the pandemic. There is much more to be done though and that is why I have been pushing hard for further measures to tackle the pressures we are facing in Kent.
Delays in court dates have a huge impact on victims, their families and can negatively affect the outcome of cases. Longer waiting times can also mean victims are less likely to press ahead with a prosecution - particularly in cases of domestic violence which is something that I have been campaigning on consistently since my election.
According to the ONS, 52% of unsuccessful domestic abuse-related prosecutions between 2019 and 2020 were because of victim-related issues including retractions and non-attendance at trial. Recently we have seen evidence of this in Kent - in April alone, the CPS locally had 117 domestic abuse cases, of which they lost 16 cases where the victim no longer supported prosecution. Improved waiting times should cut that attrition rate, ensuring victims get the protection they need.
While we have seen really positive progress in tackling the court backlog across Kent with Sevenoaks Magistrates Court waiting times more than halved since last December, there is a clear need for decisive action at the County Court level. In Kent, the Crown Court caseload is currently 135% higher than the pre-pandemic benchmark, the biggest increase in the country, and the court service’s case load is 78% higher.
That is why I asked the Justice Minister, Chris Philp MP, to update me on his work to establish a Nightingale Court for Kent last week. I was really pleased to hear him express his hope that the Ministry of Justice will be in a position to make a positive announcement in the very near future and I will be watching this closely over the coming weeks.
We all know how important timely and efficient justice is for victims and their families, and I will be keeping the pressure up on Ministers to ensure that court backlogs across the Kent criminal justice system continue to come down and a Nightingale Court is established for Kent as quickly as possible.