Ten emergency “Nightingale courts” have been set up to help the justice system cope with the backlog of cases built up during the pandemic.
The ad hoc courts will hear non-custodial crime cases as well as tribunals, family and civil matters to ensure “the wheels of justice keep turning”, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said.
Magistrates’ courts in England and Wales are facing a backlog of some 480,000 cases, while crown courts – where the most serious offences like rape and murder are dealt with – are dealing with a pile-up of some 41,000 cases, according to MoJ data for June.
10 'Nightingale Courts' announced to host civil, family & tribunals work, & some non-custodial criminal cases in public buildings.— Ministry of Justice (@MoJGovUK) July 19, 2020
These will be operational in August, increasing capacity for socially distanced hearings as part of @HMCTSgovuk court & tribunal recovery plan.
The MoJ said the new courts would create more space for existing courts to hear serious jury trials, which were temporarily paused as lockdown took effect.
Caroline Goodwin QC, chairwoman of the Criminal Bar Association, welcomed the news as a “start”, adding: “Now let’s get serious and open up 50 more buildings and focus on criminal trials.”
She said: “Time is of the essence. Two months of delay getting these 10 on-stream just piles on the human suffering to get trials on that have already been delayed for between one and three years, impacting tens of thousands of those left waiting.”
Ms Goodwin said some 26,000 crown court trials have piled up and are waiting to start, “more than twice the number than those which took place last year after Government cuts forced court rooms to shut”.
She said the Government’s “destructive slashing” of justice system budgets had led to backlogs pre-pandemic, noting that 12,473 trials with fixed dates last year were “simply bumped due to cuts to court sitting days, while perfectly good court rooms were kept idle just to shave costs”.
A court set up in East Pallant House, Chichester, is expected to begin hearing cases next week, with all 10 locations aiming to be operational by next month, the MoJ said.
After jury trials were halted in March and around half of courts closed, up to nine in 10 hearings have used remote technology to continue making progress throughout the pandemic, it added.
Together with the judiciary, courts staff and legal sector, I am determined that we must pursue every available option to ensure our courts recover as quickly as possibleRobert Buckland, Justice Secretary
Some jury trials resumed in May, after almost two months on hold, but last month Justice Secretary Robert Buckland QC warned that clearing the lockdown-induced backlog could continue into next year.
Mr Buckland said of the new interim courts: “They will help boost capacity across our courts and tribunals – reducing delays and delivering speedier justice for victims.
“But we won’t stop there. Together with the judiciary, courts staff and legal sector, I am determined that we must pursue every available option to ensure our courts recover as quickly as possible.”
Shadow justice secretary, David Lammy, said: “The Government clearly does not recognise the scale of the crisis in our justice system. The backlog in criminal cases was in the tens of thousands before the pandemic began, coronavirus has only made an existing problem worse.
“The fact that several of the new ‘Nightingale’ courts are former courts which the Government closed down exposes the cost of 10 years of cuts to the justice system. The Government must do much more to ensure victims of crime are no longer denied justice because of delay.”
The confirmed sites are:
– Former county court at Telford, Shropshire;
– Hertfordshire Development Centre, Stevenage;
– Swansea Council Chambers, Swansea;
– Cloth Hall Court, Leeds;
– Middlesbrough Town Hall, Teesside;
– East Pallant House, Chichester;
– 102 Petty France, London;
– Prospero House, London;
– Former magistrates’ court at Fleetwood, Lancashire;
– Knights’ Chamber and Visitor Centre, Bishop’s Palace, Peterborough Cathedral.