Extended court operating hours could still go ahead, HM Courts & Tribunals Service has said, despite claims by the criminal bar that the scheme has been scrapped.
Last week the Criminal Bar Association said Covid-19 Operating Hours had been abandoned ‘for the foreseeable future’ in a widely-welcomed announcement. However, in the latest weekly operational update posted on Friday, HMCTS said the Covid operating hours proposal ‘continues to be under review by the lord chancellor' following last year’s consultation.
The controversial model was piloted in seven Crown courts last year as part of a coronavirus recovery plan. Lawyers raised several concerns around discrimination, safety and wellbeing,
The Crown court backlog now stands at over 53,000 cases. In its weekly update, HMCTS said it has opened a jury trial courtroom for Crown court work at Lancaster Town Hall. A new Nightingale court in Taunton will open next week, providing two more courtrooms for Crown court and magistrates’ work.
Justice minister Chris Philp told the House of Commons last week than an extra 20 courtrooms will be in operation by the end of March, taking the total number of Nightingale courtrooms to 60.
The Crown Prosecution Service, in its latest data summary covering 1 July to 30 September, said social distancing continued to impact case progression through the courts.
Yesterday, the Daily Mail reported that prosecutors have seen a 79% rise between April-June and July-September last year in non-convictions due to ‘complainant issues’.
The CPS said the 79% increase reflects the fact there was limited activity during the period covering the first lockdown, when courts were closed, leading to a large increase when hearings resumed. The proportion of non-convictions due to complainant issues remained relatively stable – 14%-18% - between January to September. Specific reasons for complainant withdrawals are not recorded.
Law Society president David Greene said it was concerning but not surprising to see reports that victims and witnesses were dropping out of court cases.
Greene said: 'Justice is being delayed for victims, witnesses and defendants, who have proceedings hanging over them for months, if not years, with trials listed for 2022 and reportedly even 2023. Given the ongoing pandemic the best way to boost capacity to tackle the backlog whilst also keeping court users as safe is possible is to open many more Nightingale courts.
'It is also vital that the government does not impose any artificial restriction on the number of judicial sitting days, as happened prior to the pandemic, causing a major part of the current backlog. If court rooms are available, the government must fund the judges to sit in them.'