Theatres, hotels, conference centres, and a cathedral have been converted into makeshift courthouses during the pandemic, to offer desperately-needed added capacity in the face of a mounting backlog of cases.
But the Ministry of Justice has confirmed that leases on 15 of the 30 ‘Nightingales’ are due to expire at the end of June, with no guarantees they will all be extended.
A deal was struck in April for an unlimited number of Crown Court sitting days in the next financial year, delivering a boost to a justice system facing a 57,000-strong backlog of criminal cases.
But lawyers say there is a pressing need to keep the existing Nightingales while opening up more to hear jury trials, to bring forward criminal cases that have endured lengthy delays.
“Abandoning Nightingale Courts too early would be a catastrophe for victims of crime who now need certainty about when they will get their day in court after years of delays”, said shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy, accusing the government of being “asleep at the wheel”.
Answering a Parliamentary question last month, Justice Minister Chris Philp said there are current 30 ‘Nightingale’ courts open, providing 60 courtrooms in total.
He said they are “exploring options to extend the leases in order to maximise the use of the court estate”, confirming 19 were due to expire at the end of June.
Since his answer was published, four leases have been renewed including at the Jury’s Inn hotel in Croydon which is now expected to operate as a court into 2022.
The Standard has been told a deal has been struck to retain Prospero House, a conference centre in Borough, as a centre for jury trials until March next year.
However there is pressure to guarantee its existence for even longer, as it offers the space to hear long-delayed trials with multiple defendants.
Attempts to set an April 2022 trial date for an alleged multi-million pound global people-smuggling ring – where two defendants have been in custody for almost two years already – were thwarted earlier this month due to uncertainty over Prospero House’s long-term availability.
That case has now been listed for a trial starting in January 2023.
James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said victims now face up to five-year delays between reporting a crime and seeing justice, with defendants and witnesses also left in limbo.
He said the government needs to guarantee ‘Nightingales’ will be retained for the next two years, while striving to double the number dedicated to criminal cases.
“The focus for the next few months must continue to be the relentless pursuit of more court space for more in-person jury trials. It is as simple as that”, he said.
“No other ideas need be entertained. The MoJ has to fulfil its obligations in relation to setting up 60 Nightingale Courts for crime.
“Keeping with this simple, affordable strategy will ensure, once again, that timely justice is not a luxury for the privileged few but a given for all compelled to travel through our courts as complainants, victims and witnesses or those accused of crime.”
The courts were brought in to help tackle a backlog of cases, which was allowed to increase pre-pandemic but ballooned due to Covid-19 restrictions from around 39,000 in March 2020 to more than 57,000 last month.
The MoJ would not disclose details of ‘Nightingale’ leases which are due to expire, citing commercial sensitivity, but a spokesperson said: “While we keep our temporary Nightingale Courts under review, they will continue to play a key role in our response to the pandemic.”