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The Nightingale courts haven’t touched the side of the backlog to date

Covid-19 and the criminal courts: Investment is the key

Covid-19 and the criminal courts: Investment is the key


Nick Titchener, director and defence solicitor at Lawtons Law, explains what's needed to get the CJS back on its feet

The UK’s criminal justice system faces long-term damage because of numerous case delays combined with further difficulties caused by the pandemic. 

The court system, which has been described by the chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) James Mulholland as being “on its knees”, has been hit hard by the pandemic with the backlog of unprocessed criminal cases exploding exponentially since the start of Covid-19. It has reached 54,000.

There are technological developments which are being used to cope with the unprecedented issues faced by the criminal justice system.

The use of the new cloud video platform (CVP) in hearings allows cases to be dealt with remotely without the physical attendance of prosecutors, defence advocates and witnesses in the court building.

Although intended primarily as a safety measure during the pandemic, it opens up the possibility of bringing new efficiency to the system in future. 

On occasions, defendants have also not been required to attend court in person and can take part in trials or certain hearings via video link from police stations, prisons, solicitors’ offices –and even their own homes. 

The difficulty of gathering all involved parties in one place is itself a factor in court delays, so virtual hearings like those on the CVP should, at least, help to ease the backlog. But they are not enough in themselves to fix the problem.

Many court buildings were built during a time when the justice system worked completely differently. Today, they are ill-equipped for social distancing, making them incompatible with the requirements for a covid-safe trial.

In order to provide the privacy and security needed and have a physically present jury, several rooms may be needed for any one trial.

But there are ways in which the backlog of cases and complications with old court buildings can be dealt with. The system must also undergo significant change.

There are a number of hopeful signs that new post-covid-19 ways of working could help ease the backlog, even though it still sits in the tens of thousands. That includes more efficient video conferencing, the prioritising of vaccines for jurors and the Nightingale courts set up in the middle of the pandemic.

However, it will take much more than this to solve the problem for good – and proper investment is key. 

The Nightingale courts (otherwise known as Blackstone courts) haven’t touched the side of the backlog to date. Few if any have been utilised effectively to alleviate the backlog or address the lack of suitable infrastructure.

Ultimately, though, the only way of resolving the crisis facing the CJS will be through a system of investment and planning which acknowledges the failures of past governments to modernise and adapt progressively and proactively.

Nick Titchener is a director and defence solicitor at Lawtons Law