Justice Minister reveals move as 10,000 criminal cases outstanding due to pandemic
Stormont's Department of Justice is setting up more 'Nightingale Courts' to deal with a huge backlog of cases built up as a result of the Covid pandemic.
As of February 1, there were around 10,000 criminal cases outstanding, compared to around 8,100 cases in March last year. This is down from an estimated 12,800 cases in the court system in September 2020.
In relation to family cases, there were around 2,274 excess cases at the end of 2020 compared to the previous year. The DoJ said this is due to a reduction in the average disposal rate - the rate at which cases are concluded - to 0.7, compared to 0.9 in 2019.
The DoJ said that, following the reopening of most courts in August last year, the average number of receipts and disposals in the family courts has increased and is now slightly above lockdown levels. There is currently one Nightingale Court operational in Northern Ireland, at the International Conference Centre in Belfast. It started holding hearings on January 4 and has, to date, hosted more than 1,000 jury panel members, a series of coroner's inquests and some tribunal business.
It also provides consultation and waiting facilities to support business at Laganside Courts and the Royal Courts of Justice.
Justice Minister Naomi Long said the NI Courts and Tribunal Service (NICTS) has undertaken "significant work" to acquire additional satellite accommodation and to re-purpose existing buildings in the courts estate to hear cases.
"For Crown Court cases, nine courtrooms have already been fully refurbished to accommodate a socially distanced jury, with work ongoing to refurbish a further four courtrooms by April," she said. "Construction work is also continuing to re-commission the previously mothballed courthouse at Banbridge, and when this work is completed in late March, the refurbished multi-purpose hearing room will support recovery work in civil, family and tribunal tiers.
"NICTS has also acquired additional office accommodation at Richmond Chambers to support operations at Bishop Street Courthouse, and at Marlborough House Craigavon, an agreement with Department of Finance (DoF) has allowed the establishment of a Remote Evidence Centre and jury empanelment suite.
"Finally, DoF have also made space available at Coleraine County Hall, to support the running of Crown Court Jury trials at Coleraine Courthouse. NICTS continues to work closely with the Office of the Lord Chief Justice with a view to increasing the amount of court business that can be progressed while complying with the public health guidance. I will closely monitor the effectiveness of the current arrangements and the impact on all those who use our courts and tribunals."
Green Party MLA Rachel Woods, a member of Stormont's justice committee, said: "There are other innovative approaches under consideration at present, such as evidence given remotely, along with work to create Covid spaces for jury trials.
"I recently asked the Justice Minister if her department will conduct an integrated audit of all police and courtroom equipment used for trials to ensure that systems are as efficient as possible.
"The priority is maintaining access to justice. Delays and backlogs in the criminal justice system existed before Covid."