More courts reopen in boost for justice

  • Scores of Crown Court rooms to reopen across the country now restrictions have ended
  • Temporary ‘Nightingale Court’ rooms extended into 2022
  • Meanwhile ministers unveil plan to cut crime and build safer communities

Under plans confirmed by the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC, around 60 Crown Court rooms will reopen their doors by September following the lifting of most restrictions in England and Wales last week. Additionally, 32 Nightingale Court rooms – temporarily set up over the past year to increase capacity and reduce delays – will have their leases extended to April 2022. The sites, which include a hotel in Manchester and conference centres in London and Birmingham have been dealing with non-custodial criminal trials and will continue to help alleviate pressures on nearby Crown Courts.

Meanwhile, judges will have the option to open court rooms for longer under new ‘Temporary Operating Arrangements’ (TOA). The measure – which would be completely at the discretion of independent judges – enables a court room to run two lists, one in the morning and one in the afternoon instead of the standard 10am – 4pm hours. It follows successful pilots in Crown Courts in Liverpool, Cardiff, Kingston-Upon-Hull, Portsmouth, Reading, Snaresbrook and Stafford, which saw more cases flow through each week. It is designed so that no individual would be expected to work any longer than they currently do.

Judges will also be given greater flexibility to free up space in court buildings by hosting pre-trial preparation hearings online. These typically involve a defendant telling the court whether or not they plead guilty and can require all parties including the accused and lawyers present in a court room. Where a judge deems appropriate, they will be heard virtually – speeding up proceedings and allowing trials to be heard sooner, while releasing vital court room capacity.

The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, said:

I’m delighted that we can begin to carefully reopen more of the courts estate – increasing capacity significantly to deliver swifter justice for victims.

We’re also giving judges greater flexibility to open courts for longer and move more hearings online, while extending the leases of Nightingale Court rooms which have been crucial in helping reduce delays during the pandemic.

Alongside our plan to have no limit on the number of days Crown Courts can sit for this year, we are pursuing every available option to ensure the justice system can build back stronger as quickly as possible.

Following the new public health guidance introduced on Monday 19th July, courts will begin to carefully reopen those rooms which were closed due to them not allowing for social distancing.

Today’s announcement forms part of significant action to ensure the courts can operate at full throttle to recover from the pandemic and tackle delays. This includes:

  • Setting up 60 Nightingale Court rooms to increase capacity and ensure more trials can be heard.
  • Ensuring there is no limit on the number of days that Crown courts can sit for this year.
  • Safely running 290 court rooms for jury trials – more than before the pandemic.
  • Hosting more than 20,000 hearings using remote technology each week – a huge rise from a standing start in March 2020.

The impact of these measures is already being seen. England and Wales was among the first major jurisdictions in the world to resume jury trials, while latest figures show the number of outstanding cases has dropped by tens of thousands in the Magistrates’ since last summer, and fell by 500 in the Crown Courts this past month.

Meanwhile, ministers have today set out a new plan to cut crime and build safer communities. The ‘Beating Crime Plan’ spans work across the police, courts, prison and probation service to drive down and prevent crime, improve confidence in the criminal justice system, rehabilitate offenders and create the safer streets the public want for themselves and their neighbours.

Notes:

  • The full list of Nightingale Courts. HMCTS is working to extend leases for those hosting criminal trials; although some venues may change subject to negotiations with landlords.
  • The Lord Chancellor recently set out his plan for court recovery in a speech.
  • 60 court rooms will reopen in buildings across the country by September, staring with Snaresbrook, Southwark, Bristol, Manchester, Isleworth, Nottingham Crown courts.
  • The Ministry of Justice has proposed two models that judges can use if appropriate to their court. Both will run alongside normal operating hours in the other court rooms:
    • A ‘blended model’ which involves the running of two separate jury trials listed in one courtroom. One in the morning from 9am to 1pm, and one in the afternoon from 2pm to 6pm.
    • The ‘remote model’ is for sessions held entirely remotely where hearing takes place outside of the standard operating hours (9am-5pm). These sessions would consist of non-trial work, such as Pre-Trial Preparation Hearings (PTPHs), mentions, and sentencing. This would benefit those with caring responsibilities, removing any commutes.
  • Details of the Beating Crime Plan are available on GOV.UK.

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