Nine Nightingale courts to stay open amid warnings over backlog 'crisis'

Announcement follows victims’ commissioner's call for “urgent and creative intervention” to address "chronic and unacceptable delays"
Grand Connaught Rooms, London hosts one of the nine Nightingale courts. Photo: Andrew Spiers/Alamy Stock Photo

The Ministry of Justice is extending the life of nine of its Nightingale courts for a second time in a bid to tackle the ongoing backlog in cases, amid warnings that it must take decisive action to get on top of rising caseloads.

Twenty courtrooms in total will remain open beyond their expected closure date, the MoJ said.

The Nightingale courts began opening in 2020, to increase capacity to handle the backlog of cases that built up in the early years of the Covid pandemic.

This time last year, the MoJ said 11 of the courts that were due to close would stay open. At the time, the latest figures showed that the number of outstanding crown court cases had risen since the height of the pandemic, from the previous peak of 61,000 in mid-2021 to 62,766  as of the end of September 2022.

The numbers have since risen to a record high, reaching 65,004 last August, the MoJ’s latest quarterly statistics show. The next stats will be published at the end of March.

When the figures were published in December, victims’ commissioner for England and Wales Helen Newlove called for “urgent and creative intervention” to address the “crisis”.

She said the backlog could not be attributed solely to the pandemic or to barristers’ strikes in late 2022.

“It suggests there are wider systemic problems in our justice system, and I am concerned that chronic and unacceptable delays are becoming ingrained in the system. This must never be normalised nor tolerated,” she said.

Most of the courtrooms remaining open will tackle crown court cases, with a few focusing on civil and family cases and one on magistrates’ court cases.

Sites at Chichester, Cirencester, Croydon, Swansea, Telford, and Fleetwood in Blackpool will remain open until March 2025. The Maple House in Birmingham site will close in December this year, while courts at London’s Grand Connaught Rooms and Barbican will close in September and August respectively.

The sites have been chosen because they are in areas where they can: help reduce the number of local outstanding cases; support maintenance projects by hearing cases when nearby locations are temporarily closed; or make full use of judicial capacity in court areas where there are more judges available, according to the MoJ.

The Nightingale courts in Maidstone and Wolverhampton will close at the end of March as they are no longer needed, according to the MoJ.

'Huge backlogs are causing unacceptable delays for victims'

Justice minister Mike Freer said keeping the 20 courtrooms open will ensure people who break the law "face justice".

“Crown courts are already dealing with the highest number of cases than at any point since 2019. We want to keep making progress and deliver swifter access to justice," he said.

However, Law Society president Nick Emmerson said additional physical capacity alone will not be enough to eradicate the case backlog, adding that “there are already Nightingale courts sitting empty due to a lack of judges”.

“The huge backlogs in our criminal courts are causing unacceptable delays for victims, witnesses and defendants and any extra capacity to deal with them is welcome,” he said.

He pointed to Lady Chief Justice Dame Sue Carr’s revelation last month that there were 100 unplanned closures of courtrooms every week.

Carr told parliament’s justice committee that the “endemic, ingrained” dilapidation of court buildings was contributing to trial delays, and that last-minute courtroom closures were leaving officials “hand to mouth, scrabbling around trying to find solutions” to enable hearings to happen.

Emmerson said the Law Society was hearing the “same story from [its] members, who often work in courts with broken heating, sewage, mould and asbestos”.

“The most pressing issue is there are not enough lawyers, court staff or judges to cover all the outstanding cases. If no immediate action is taken, courts will be even less able to cope, with potentially damaging consequences for society,” he said.

“A significant injection of funding is urgently needed to prevent this collapse.”

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