Nightingale Courts explained

Work with Offenders details the concept of nightingale courts announced by the MoJ

Yesterday (Sunday 19 July), the Ministry of Justice announced the locations for 10 new “Nightingale Courts”. We all know about Nightingale Hospitals (the seven critical care temporary hospitals established by NHS England to ensure that the NHS wasn’t overrun by patients with coronavirus), but what exactly are Nightingale Courts?

Although the courts, like the temporary hospitals, are designed to cope with the pressures associated with the pandemic, the reasons for needing extra capacity are quite different. While the Nightingale Hospitals were set up to deal with the massive extra demand of patients needing critical care because they had contracted coronavirus, the number of people arrested for criminal offences during the last four months has actually dropped substantially. The reason we need temporary courts is that so many of our existing courts (124 out of 281) were closed and jury trials suspended in order to minimise social interaction between court users. Inevitably, the already substantial backlog of cases has worsened during the course of lockdown with a queue of more than 40,000 trials at the Crown Court as we reported last month.

The MoJ is keen to try to reduce the backlog which was already substantial (over 30,000 Crown Court cases) before the pandemic. We need increased court capacity not just to tackle the backlog but stop it getting worse. Like most organisations which are required to operate in a way that ensures social distancing, the capacity of our existing courts has been reduced significantly.

The 10 new courts are situated all across England and Wales and will hear 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 custodial jury trials, which require cells and secure dock facilities to keep the public, victims and witnesses safe.

A court set up in East Pallant House, Chichester, is expected to begin hearing an expanded list of cases next week, with all 10 locations up and running in August. The 10 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 (the MoJ headquarters)
  • Prospero House, London
  • Former magistrates’ court at Fleetwood, Lancashire
  • Knights’ Chamber and Visitor Centre, Bishop’s Palace, Peterborough Cathedral.

Many have already pointed out the irony that the government has spent much of the last 10 years closing down as many courts as possible to reduce public expenditure. More than half (164/320) magistrates’ courts were closed between 2010 and 2020 with the sale of court buildings raising more than £200 million for the Exchequer.

The introduction of more courthouses is likely to be more palatable to the legal profession many of whom have been protesting about the decision to increase the opening hours for existing courts to increase the number of cases processed safely in any one day. Legal representatives, particularly those with childcare responsibilities, were questioning how they would be able to work evenings at such little notice.

The Ministry of Justice is also hoping that its £142 million investment in technological improvements over the last few years will increase the number of cases which can be heard in a day.

As of today 54 Crown courts will be hearing jury trials for the first time since lockdown was implemented in March.

If our court system can get back up to speed again quickly, it will be interesting to see the impact on our prison population which has fallen by over 4000 prisoners since the middle of March – almost entirely because of the slowdown in our courts. Inevitably, increased activity in one part of our criminal justice system creates pressure points elsewhere.