‘Nightingale’ courts to fast-track justice case build-up following pandemic
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A whopping 354 murder cases and 1,159 rape cases were waiting to be dealt with in crown courts by the end of March, figures revealed.
The temporary courts are the latest effort by the Government to ensure that justice is not derailed by the Covid-19 crisis.
Venues for the courts include the Ministry of Justice’s headquarters in London, the Knights’ Chamber at Peterborough Cathedral and Middlesbrough Town Hall.
The courts will hear civil and family cases as well as noncustodial crime cases.
This will free up room in existing courts for custodial jury trials that require cells and secure dock facilities.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland is understood to have argued very strongly behind the scenes for the new measures. He said: “Together with the judiciary, courts staff and legal sector, I am determined that we must pursue every available option to ensure our courts recover as quickly as possible.”
Nearly half of all courts were closed in March when the country went into lockdown. Jury trials were paused.
Some trials resumed in May, and the justice system took steps to ensure that domestic abuse victims could obtain protection orders and children could be safeguarded.
Labour has said the scale of the backlog was “wholly avoidable” and claimed the Government “owes every victim an apology”.
Shadow justice minister Peter Kyle was highly critical of the Government.
He said: “The justice system has been brought to its knees by a double whammy of prolonged under-investment followed by the Covid crisis. “As a result, thousands of victims of violent sexual crimes and murder are being denied the swift justice they deserve.
“Delays like this make the suffering of victims worse and can lead to difficulties with prosecution.”
The Government is considering opening more Nightingale Courts and is looking at options to ease pressure on the judicial system.
This includes opening courts for longer, and increasing the number of cases that can be heard on any given day.
New video technology, which has been used in the majority of hearings since the outbreak began, is also being rolled out.
In addition, some £142million has been announced to improve more than 100 courts.
Sir Bob Neill, the Tory chairman of the justice select committee, described the scale of the backlog as “very troubling”.
He said: “The backlog in the crown court is already unacceptably high, which in turn is unfair both upon defendants, especially those remanded in custody, and upon witnesses waiting to give evidence about very traumatic events.
“The Government must make extra money available to ensure that all courts sit to maximum capacity for as long as it takes to get this backlog down and give priority to these particularly serious cases.”
The efforts come as the total number of UK coronavirus deaths reached 45,273, with an increase of 40 yesterday.
The Sunday Express has learnt there are allegedly concerns in Whitehall that Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and other experts could be trying to distance themselves from controversial decisions in preparation for the future independent inquiry. A source said that “emails are pinging around” saying, “we told you this on such and such a date”.
The source said: “There’s a lot of **** covering going on.”
It is understood Sir Patrick’s appearance with a mask in front of the health committee last week was described as “a deliberate snub” of the Prime Minister’s plans to unlock the country by Christmas.
Asked about the Government relationship with Sir Patrick, a government spokesman said: “We are extremely grateful to the Chief Scientific Adviser and all our scientific and medical experts for their contributions and hard work throughout this pandemic. We greatly value their expertise and their advice continues to inform government decision-making and the national strategic response to coronavirus.”
Meanwhile, there are worries that the chances of pubs and cafes recovering from the impact of the lockdown could be dealt a blow if councils are given the power to ban smoking at pavement seating. On Monday, peers are due to vote on a Labour amendment that would allow local authorities to ban smoking in areas covered by pavement licences.
The Local Government Association supports the amendment and argues smokefree pavements will help high streets recover. But TV chef and restaurateur Antony Worrall Thompson said: “Why on earth would the Lords and the LGA want to discourage a substantial number of people from returning to pubs, cafes and restaurants? For smokers it is one of the few remaining pleasures, sitting enjoying a glass of wine or a pint of beer.”
In a further move, new public buildings will have to be equipped with “changing places” toilets for the disabled.
More than 250,000 people are expected to benefit from the new requirements at sites in England, including shopping centres and sports stadiums.
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