Nightingale court at East Pallant House is ‘hugely symbolic for Chichester’
News that East Pallant House will host England’s first Nightingale Court has been hailed as ‘hugely symbolic for Chichester’.
It is one of ten new locations in England and Wales where temporary courts will be set up to help deal with the backlog of cases caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The announcement was welcomed by Gillian Keegan, the MP for Chichester, who said: “It is great news that Chichester has been included in the new Nightingale courts scheme to work through the backlog of court cases brought on by the coronavirus outbreak.
“Ensuring we have local access to justice is hugely important and I am grateful to my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for ensuring that we are in the first such Nightingale group.
“Despite holding more hearings remotely this extra space is needed to ensure people can access the justice they deserve in a COVID-secure way.”
Edward Cooke, a family lawyer and mediator based in Chichester, also welcomed the news – but urged authorities to go further by securing full-time court provision in the city long term.
East Pallant House has been used as a ‘pop up court’ for a number of days each month since January 2019, thanks to a four-year campaign led by Mr Cooke.
But as a nightingale court it will sit on a daily basis to hear both family and civil cases, starting from this week.
Mr Cooke said: “After all our efforts, it’s really pleasing we will now see many more cases being dealt with at East Pallant House.
“Back in 2015, when the government announced the closure of the old court buildings, many people said we would never be able to secure any ongoing provision.
“We had to fight for four years to retain any provision, so to see this now being converted into the first Nightingale Court in the country makes us feel very proud.
“It is hugely symbolic for Chichester.”
Mr Cooke said there was ‘a real opportunity’ for the building to host a full-time court long-term after Chichester District Council, which uses East Pallant House for council meetings, confirmed it would be reviewing its future use of the building.
Mr Cooke called for a ‘modern, flexible approach’ for the building, adding: “If the existing council meeting rooms could be freed up for use by the court for the long term, this could generate a very valuable source of rental income for Chichester District Council at a difficult time.”
He suggested that some council meetings could continue to be held online going forward, or that other public buildings in the city – including those owned by the county council, such as Edes House – could be used for meetings.
However a spokesman for the council said that decisions over court provision and the future of court sites lay with the HM Courts & Tribunals Service, not the council.
The nightingale court was a temporary arrangement until the end of August, after which courts will revert to sitting in the building on some Fridays as before, the spokesman said, adding: “From September onwards we will need the committee rooms back for our own use for the majority of the time, particularly so that we can ensure that our meetings are effectively socially distanced.”
Mr Cooke also repeated his calls, previously published in the Observer here, for the vacant Crown and Magistrates Court buildings at Southgate to be used as a second nightingal court facility.
He said: “As the backlog in the criminal justice system is absolutely horrendous, this would make a huge amount of sense.
“Only three of the 10 Nightingale Courts announced so far will be hearing criminal trials.
“Both the old Chichester Crown Court and the Magistrates Court lie completely empty and both buildings are purpose-built to deal with criminal trials.
“Why not put them to use at this point of national crisis?”
A spokesman for the HM Courts & Tribunals Service told the Observer it was continuing to examine suitable sites for Nightingale Courts, including cites owned by HMCTS, and would announce further decisions in due course.
The spokesman said: “We’ve kept the justice system running throughout the pandemic and East Pallant House will ensure more cases are heard in Chichester while social distancing rules are in place.
“We will continue working with the judiciary, courts staff and legal sector, to pursue every available option to ensure our courts recover as quickly as possible.”
Ms Keegan said she would continue to work closely with the Ministry of Justice to ensure Chichester maintains local access to court services.
She said: “Many of you will remember the long-fought campaign to secure court services at the council buildings.
“Fighting to keep justice provision in our City was one of the first campaigns I fought as your MP.
“I will continue to work closely with the MoJ to ensure we maintain local access to court services and work through this backlog as swiftly as possible.”