Up to 100 'Nightingale' courts to be created to reduce backlog of crown court cases

Charles Hymas
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Up to 100 “Nightingale” courts could be created across England and Wales to help clear a backlog of cases that has increased by nearly a quarter during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is planning to establish between 50 and 100 of the courts, which will be based in public buildings such as councils, lecture halls or leisure centres so that juries and staff can be spaced to meet social distancing requirements.

The first 10 sites will be announced before the Summer parliamentary recess this month and expanded in the coming months to tackle a growing backlog of crown court cases after trials were halted during lockdown.

The number of outstanding crown court cases has risen from 39,214 before the Covid-19 outbreak to 41,599, while the magistrates backlog has mushroomed from 407, 129 to 510,559, a cumulative increase of 23.7 per cent, according to MoJ figures this week.

The Nightingale courts - echoing emergency Nightingale hospitals created to treat Covid-19 patients - will be used for “low security, high complexity and time-consuming” cases, according to sources, who also refer to them as Blackstone courts after Sir William Blackstone, the jurist and judge.

Because they will not have cells like traditional courts, they will not handle cases where the defendant has been on remand for crimes such as murder, violence or sexual assaults. They also need to be in town or city centres so court staff and lawyers can easily reach them.

Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, also plans to reduce the backlog through evening and weekend courts and increased use of technology such as video links. Reducing juries from 12 to a minimum of seven members is also an option if the other measures fail to cut the backlog.

The Magistrates’ Association has backed longer hours for courts but has also called for “radical” options including increasing magistrates sentencing powers from six months to a year’s jail so they could handle more cases that might otherwise be dealt with by crown courts.

“It wouldn’t be enough to deal with the backlog on its own, obviously, but it seems like the most likely approach is going to involve lots of complementary measures and we think this should be one of them,” said Jon Collins, chief executive of the association.

 

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