The court system in England and Wales was struggling long before COVID-19. Court closures and chronic under-funding has created a damaging backlog of cases, impacting victims disproportionately. The COVID-19 crisis has amplified these pre-existing challenges, with the temporary suspension of jury trials during lockdown and social distancing measures increasing that backlog.
In March 2020, almost half of all courts were closed and jury trials were paused to minimise social interaction between court users. Since then, court staff, legal professionals, and the judiciary have collaborated to prioritise cases and keep the justice system running throughout the lockdown – with up to 90% of all hearings using remote technology during the pandemic.
These actions have meant that, throughout the lockdown, domestic abuse victims could obtain protection orders, children could be safeguarded, and dangerous suspects dealt with.
Measures were put in place to safely resume jury trials in May 2020, and 54 Crown Courts will be hearing jury trials as of next week. More widely, almost all courts are now open to the public again – with over 300 operating this week.
Last week, the Lord Chancellor set out further measures which are being considered to help ease pressure on the courts system. These included opening courts for longer to increase the number of cases that can be heard safely on any given day, and continuing to use video technology to hear cases where appropriate. Additional potential Nightingale Courts sites are also being explored.
To help alleviate some of this pressure, the government has today announced the creation of ten new 'Nightingale Courts' - temporary courts that can take on delayed civil, family and tribunals work as well as non-custodial crime cases. The move will free up room in existing courts to hear other cases, including serious jury trials, which require cells and secure dock facilities to keep the public, victims and witnesses safe. Middlesbrough Town Hall, the Knights’ Chamber within the grounds of Peterborough Cathedral, and the Ministry of Justice’s headquarters in London are among the venues that will soon be in use.
A court set up in East Pallant House, Chichester, is expected to begin hearing an expanded list of cases next week, with all ten locations up and running in August.
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
The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP said:
Our action to keep the justice system running throughout the pandemic has been globally recognised, with these Nightingale Courts being the latest step in this effort.
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 MP, responded to the announcement, saying:
BLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS
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 ten 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.