Site aims to expedite hearings as NAO report warns backlog of cases may last for years
Credit: Clara Molden/PA
A hotel conference room in the Midlands has been kitted out with new technology as part of its transformation into the justice system’s latest Nightingale court.
The M40 J15 in Warwick – named for its location just off the motorway – will shortly begin hosting jury trials for burglary and drug-related offences. The hotel, which is run by the Marriott chain, becomes one of a growing network of temporary courts created by the government’s Nightingale programme.
The scheme has seen criminal, civil and family hearings hosted at a range of locations including hotels, civic buildings, events venues and even the Ministry of Justice’s own London headquarters.
The initiative is designed to ease the mounting pressure on the justice system; the increased use of video and audioconferencing is also aimed at expediting processes.
To which end, the new facility in Warwick “comes equipped with the latest technology rolled out at speed by HM Courts and Tribunals Service during the pandemic”, according to the government.
“This means parties in the case can appear remotely by video where appropriate, to avoid any delays to proceedings,” it added.
M40 J15 becomes the fifth Nightingale court to be opened in the Midlands region, joining facilities in Birmingham, Nottingham, Telford and Wolverhampton.
Courts minister James Cartlidge said: “The new Warwick Nightingale court will provide vital additional courtrooms to give people in the Midlands faster access to justice. We have already pumped £14m into temporary courts across the country to increase capacity and will continue to help the criminal justice system recover from the pandemic, deliver swifter justice and support victims.”
Despite this investment, the backlog of cases has snowballed during the pandemic and, according to a report published today by the National Audit Office, is unlikely to be entirely cleared before 2025 at the earliest.
The NAO found that the MoJ had wanted to open a further 33 Nightingale courts during the 2021/22 year – but HM Treasury did not approve the necessary funding.
There are currently 61,000 Crown Court cases received and waiting to be heard; the pile-up grew by 48% between March 2020 and June 2021, according to the report. A total of 364,000 cases are awaiting hearing at a magistrates’ court.
“The Covid-19 pandemic presented the criminal justice system with an unprecedented challenge. It has had an acute impact on criminal courts, which were already strained in the year leading up to the pandemic,” the NAO said. “Despite the concerted efforts of HMCTS and the Ministry of Justice to increase capacity in criminal courts quickly and safely, the Crown Court backlog looks likely to be a pervasive issue beyond 2024. This means more victims, witnesses and defendants will continue to be severely affected. In their work to recover, the Ministry and HMCTS cannot afford to lose sight of the impact that both the backlog and their recovery programme have on court users, particularly those who are vulnerable or have traditionally faced discrimination, including ethnic minorities.”