When the COVID-19 pandemic came to England and began to rapidly spread across the country, the government set up a series of ‘Nightingale’ hospitals to cope with the influx of seriously ill patients it was feared would soon overwhelm the NHS.
As the pandemic went on, however, it wasn’t just the health system that was feeling the strain.
A backlog of legal cases also began to stack up as a result of nationwide court closures, leading Her Majesty’s Court & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) to announce the establishment of dozens of Nightingale courts.
The latest site to be opened is located at the University of Bolton Stadium, which will host hearings on non-custodial criminal cases across two courtrooms; just a couple of the 60 courtrooms HMCTS recently pledged would be up and running by the end of March 2021.
The drive for more court space is a result of the now critical overspill of court cases yet to be heard across England and Wales, which a report published by the House of Lords constitution committee on 30 March warned had reached “crisis level”.
The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice show that there were 58,827 outstanding criminal cases at the end of 2020, up from 38,212 the previous year.
The data also showed that, in the three months to December 2020, 18% of cases had been outstanding for a year or more – up from 6% in 2019.
Investment in justice
The move to open more Nightingale courts is part of a £113m government investment to support courts and tribunals as they deal with the ongoing impact of the pandemic.
This includes the recruitment of 1,600 extra staff and further investment in technology and on-site safety measures. A further £142m is being spent on modernising courtrooms, according to a government press release.
This, the government says, has been instrumental in reducing the number of cases outstanding in the magistrates’ courts by 50,000 since last summer’s peak.
First ‘super courtroom’
Plans have also been revealed for a ‘super courtroom’ at Manchester Crown Court to host complex cases such as gang murder trials. Due to the continued enforcement of social distancing restrictions, it has become difficult for ordinary courtrooms to accommodate trials with multiple defendants; as an example, safety restrictions recently forced a Manchester murder trial to take place in two separate courtrooms, with participants in the second courtroom following the trial by video link.
The rise of the virtual hearing
As well as the establishment of extra courtrooms for physically attended trials, the government has reported a 4,000% rise in remote hearings since March 2020, which it says has been instrumental in “keeping justice moving” during the pandemic.
However, their success has been questioned by the legal profession, with a survey published in September 2020 revealing that just 16% of solicitors believe that vulnerable clients can effectively participate in remote hearings.
It is clear, however, that the coronavirus pandemic has greatly accelerated the modernisation of the justice system, which many commentators believe is as welcome as it is desperately overdue.
While court delays have undoubtedly been hugely stressful for those waiting for their cases to be heard, we hope that the investments made in the past year will continue to benefit our justice system for many years to come.