'Nightingale court' set to open in Leeds to hear long criminal trials as part of efforts to tackle backlog of cases caused by Covid pandemic

Leeds may be about to get a second criminal court in the city in a bid to ease the backlog of cases caused by the pandemic.

Monday, 26th July 2021, 4:45 am

The historic Cloth Hall Court, on Quebec Street, has been identified as a possible venue to become a 'Nightingale court'.

It is thought the temporary court will mainly be used to hear lengthy cases such as fraud and child sexual exploitation trials.

The Recorder of Leeds, Judge Guy Kearl QC, said the move is part of measures being put in place at a local level as Leeds continues to outperform most other court centres across the country.

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The Recorder of Leeds, Judge Guy Kearl QC.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post, Judge Kearl, the city's most senior judge, said a temporary court was necessary to ensure the main Crown court, on Oxford Row. can continue to address the backlog.

The Nightingale court would likely hear complex cases involving multiple defendants which can take weeks, sometimes months, to reach a conclusion.

He said: "At the moment we are running eight trial courts.

"We can't have two or three cases taking up a court for that period of time so we are expecting to get a Nightingale court in Leeds some time in the future.

Leeds Crown Court.

"Resources are quite stretched at the moment - we can't run the court unless they are properly resourced.

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The backlog of Crown court cases in England and Wales has hit a record number of almost 60,000, according to figures released last month

A Ministry of Justice document showed there were 59,532 outstanding Crown court cases by 31 March, up 45 per cent on the previous year.

Cloth Hall Court could be used a 'Nightingale court' for long-running trials.

The figure was the highest level on record, and included all offence groups and case types.

A fifth of Crown court cases are taking more than a year to be heard, while the average waiting time has jumped by 43 per cent to 363 days.

There are also almost 400,000 outstanding magistrates’ court cases, up 21 per cent on the previous year.

The backlogs mean that some trials are now being scheduled in 2023.

A court room at Leeds Crown Court with acrylic screens

Cloth Hall Court is currently being used as a Nightingale court for civil cases.

Using a second floor of the building for criminal trials is being considered.

The Lowry Theatre, in Salford, is one of a number of buildings across the country to be used to hear criminal trials during the pandemic.

Judge Kearl said other new measures have also been put in place in a bid to reduce trial waiting times.

Judge Kearl said: "Over the past three or four weeks we have managed to complete 60 trial cases over the two courts.

"It is very demanding for the judges because they are having to prepare for two trials each night, it is demanding for counsel as they have to be prepared to be ready for the trial if it goes ahead.

"But they are capable and it has saved many days of court time.

"There has been a lot of cooperation between the CPS, the bar and the judiciary and it has been easier to achieve in a city such as Leeds than many others."

Leeds was the first Crown court to restart trials in July last year, four months after all jury cases were abandoned soon after the first lockdown.

The Judge said: "I got in three private designers and asked them how we could get 12 members of the jury in a the court together without two-meter distancing but still being safe."

The designers came up with a system of perspex booths which were installed for jurors.

The same system has since been rolled out to more than 250 courts nationally.

"That was encouraging, because jurors are compelled to be here.

"It is not like being in a restaurant or a pub where you can turn around and go out.

"They have to be safe."

Leeds was also the first court to replace jury rooms with portable cabins to allow jurors to consider verdicts at a safe social distance.

The judge also said he expects the use of new technology to continue to allow lawyers and other interested parties to attend cases remotely in order to save time.

He said: "(Remote access) has its place. For example, with shorter administrative hearings, I can't think of a good reason why I would ask somebody to travel to the court from London or Manchester for a ten-minute hearing in front of me.

"But, for instance, in a case involving death by dangerous driving, you would expect all counsel to attend in person. They need to be here to speak to the families of the deceased. That is part of their job."