Thousands of court cases on hold as minister plots 'Nightingale courts' to tackle Covid-19 backlog

All trials were halted in England and Wales on March 23 and some began to resume last month Credit: PA

The government is planning to set up "Nightingale courts" to try and reduce some of the backlog of court cases built up during the coronavirus crisis.

While there were hundreds of thousands of cases already on court waiting lists, the pandemic has made the situation much worse, with Justice Secretary Robert Buckland expecting the backlog to run into next year.

By the end of May, there were more than 40,500 cases waiting to be dealt with by Crown Courts in England and Wales, up from 37,434 on December 31, according to figures released by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA).

The logjam in magistrates courts increased even more dramatically over lockdown, with 483,678 cases waiting to be dealt with by May 17, up from 395,606 on March 22.

The CBA believes these will later add to the waiting piles in Crown Courts, as the cases make their way through the criminal justice system.

"The caseload has increased somewhat, and we need to eat into that - and that will take quite a few months this year and next year," the justice secretary told BBC Radio 4.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland is planning to 'use every tool in the book' to reduce the backlog. Credit: PA

He said work was work was "going on apace" to set up "Nightingale courts" which just like their hospital counterparts, will be converted from regular buildings to help reduce pressure elsewhere in the sector.

Mr Buckland said he would have to use "every tool in the book" in order to deliver "swift justice".

Courts are stuck between “a rock and an impossible place” as tens of thousands of cases continue to build up after hearings were halted by coronavirus, an industry body has warned.

Their analysis of courts and tribunals service (HMCTS) figures comes as one trial, for an alleged crime in July 2019, will not reach trial until December 2021 at the earliest.

The case, scheduled for a crown court in London, could be pushed back yet further to 2022.

All trials were halted in England and Wales on March 23 and some began to resume last month.

A spokesman for the CBA described judges and listing officers as “caught between a rock and an impossible place with courts still remaining largely closed and the backlog growing week by week.”

The authority say the build-up has been growing for some years, and in Crown Courts waiting lists are now up 22% on 31 December 2018.

Cases are taking longer to make their way through the system, with an average of 511 days from ‘offence to completion’ in 2019, up from 391 days in 2010.

The chair of the CBA has called for greater investment and claims that the body “consistently […] warned that the move back to court, in particular trials, would be slow and cautious” following lockdown.

Caroline Goodwin QC said: “It’s very simple, to cut the backlog and to stop this excruciating delay, we need Treasury to step up to the plate. Treasury must pay to allow all available court buildings to be used and all available judges to preside over hearings and when that is done utilise more buildings and set the Recorders (part-time judges) to work alongside the Judges.

“Jury trials have resumed and that is a huge step forward of which we should be proud but only for now in a limited number of courts.”

She added: “Being serious about law and order while ensuring the innocent don’t suffer miscarriages of justice means being serious about the billions of investment needed now across the board.”

A HMCTS spokesperson said: “We have worked closely with the judiciary to safely continue thousands of hearings during the pandemic

“This includes prioritising urgent cases, such as those involving domestic abuse, swiftly increasing our capacity to hear cases remotely, and resuming jury trials so that justice can continue to be done.

“This data reflects the unprecedented circumstances facing the court system and we will continue to work on further measures to ensure justice is delivered.”