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Nightingale Courts – a solution for COVID-19 or a creaking justice system?

In March 2020 with the UK lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over half of all England and Wales courts were forced to close down having a worrying impact on the justice system. This has led to a growing concern that many millions of people are being denied access to justice, particularly those in vulnerable positions such as children and in family law cases. In the cases of criminal law, the situation is becoming increasingly worrying with one alleged crime taking place in July 2019 which is now not due to be heard by trial until December 2021.

In response to this, the Government has announced the set-up of 10 ‘Nightingale Courts’ in an attempt to tackle the impact of Coronavirus on the justice system. Regionally based Nightingale Courts will hear civil, family and tribunal cases as well as non-custodial crime. This is intended to free up much needed space in existing court rooms for cases such as trial by jury in an attempt to clear the backlog. With around 90% of hearings taking place using remote technology during the lockdown, the Government have argued that this will support with getting the wheels turning on justice again.

So, is the effect of Covid-19 on the court system being used as a political tool to shift focus away from the issues already affecting a creaking justice system prior to the pandemic?

In December 2019, the Criminal Bar Association reported a backlog of 37,434 criminal cases with court waiting lists up 22% on the previous year. This followed the closure of 80 courts in England and Wales as part of the justice transformation programme in 2019. Since 2010, over half of Magistrate’s Courts have stopped hearing cases, with some individuals having to travel over 50 miles for court hearing.

In September 2019, Lady Justice Manor hit back at the cuts claiming 40% of Crown Court rooms were sitting idle and sitting day allocations had fallen from 97,400 in 2018/10 to 83,300 in 2019/2020. She claimed that this was a political move to take justice out of the courtroom with over 300,000 cases now using justice technology – all very worrying despite an increase of 13% in criminal cases since 2019 in England and Wales.

Fast forward to June 2020 where the Government announced a £285m investment in improving courts and prisons with £142m going into improving the courts. With the aim of speeding up the justice system using technology and modernised court rooms, this represents the single biggest investment in over 20 years.

Where do Nightingale Courts fit in? And what is the reality of these establishments having a positive effect on those desperately needing access to justice?

Many are concerned that this doesn’t recognise the scale of the crisis leading to injustice and suffering. Many of the Nightingale Court locations have been set up within former court rooms which had fallen victim to 10 years of cuts. The locations are concerning for many. Some areas, such as the East Midlands, have the biggest backlog of cases per capita but have no regional court available, and the prospect of travel on many barristers and vulnerable victims of crime is concerning.

Nightingale Courts will also operate extended hours meaning those that travel having to work more. Many female barristers, who already work for approximately 1 day a week unpaid on case prep, will be disproportionately affected by the proposed extended hours. The juggling of family and life could lead to a crisis in the career of a female barrister.

While COVID-19 has had a direct impact on the justice system, as in many areas of life, it has exacerbated an already deep problem with our access to courts in England and Wales. Crown Chambers believes everyone has a basic human right to be heard in a court of law and we will be watching the investment programme, the Nightingale Courts programme and the proposed extended hours with interest.

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