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England: “Nightingale Courts” Aim to Relieve Pandemic Backlog of Court Cases

(Mar. 29, 2021) England’s court administration agency, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), has introduced additional venues to be used as temporary courts to ease pressure on the courts and clear a backlog of cases. The backlog was caused in part by the closure of half the courts across England in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. HMCTS sought to prioritize “[t]he most urgent cases . . . to ensure public safety, protect the vulnerable and safeguard children.” To help ensure the court service continued during the pandemic, HMCTS permitted hearings to be conducted via phone and video. A large backlog of cases accrued nonetheless; at one point 56,000 cases were reported to be awaiting trial in the Crown Court alone.

The temporary courts have been termed “Nightingale courts” and operate in public spaces, such as in Law School moot courts and other public buildings, to supplement the capacity of the courts and enable “traditional court buildings to manage more work while maintaining social distancing.” These courts hear civil, family, non-custodial criminal cases and tribunal cases. The use of Nightingale courts to hear custodial criminal cases was rejected as “prohibitively expensive due to the need to provide secure docks and cell facilities.”

The Nightingale Courts were first announced in June 2020, and the first court opened on July 20. As of early March 2021 there were 50 Nightingale courts in operation across England; HMCTS has pledged to have opened 60 by months’ end. Thirty million pounds (approximately US$42 million) has been invested in the Nightingale courts alone, with a “total investment in action to reduce delays and alleviate pressures on the courts system to more than £110m” (approximately US$153 million), used for staff recruitment,  technology, and physical site improvements to help protect individuals against COVID-19.

A multi-faceted approach involving the use of Nightingale courts, an increased use of remote technology, and an increase in the number of sitting days of the judiciary have resulted in significant drops in the number of cases awaiting trial.

The president of the Law Society of England and Wales welcomed the opening of additional Nightingale courts, but said that “swift further investment on a much greater scale is required” to clear backlogs that have resulted in some cases being delayed for years.