New calls for nightingale court as demand on Suffolk and Norfolk's victim and witness care unit soars due to backlog of court cases
Demand on Suffolk and Norfolk's victim and witness care unit has increased by 70 per cent as a result of a backlog of court cases, Suffolk's police and crime commissioner has warned - prompting fresh calls for a nightingale court.
Latest Ministry of Justice figures indicated that between January and March there was a backlog of nearly 5,000 cases in the county as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic - 4,041 cases at Suffolk Magistrates' Court in Ipswich and 909 at Ipswich Crown Court.
That number has come down from the 5,955 backlog at its peak between July and September last year, and the Ministry of Justice has said Ipswich Crown Court is concluding more cases than those coming in.
But fresh concerns were raised over access to justice at Friday's Police and Crime Panel meeting in Suffolk.
Police and crime commissioner Tim Passmore said: "The burden on the witness and victim care unit, which we run jointly with Norfolk, has gone up 70 per cent because we are not getting cases through magistrates' courts and the crown courts.
"I have spoken to the HM Courts and Tribunal Service, their estates department, who are continuing to look for additional sites to hold crown court cases and also magistrates' court appearances. That appears to be quite a challenge.
"I have given them a few suggestions - I know they looked at Endeavour House - but for various reasons I don’t know they couldn’t use that.
"But that doesn’t help - we haven’t got a nightingale court in Suffolk so the backlog is considerable.
"That is no good for victims, which is what we should be focusing on, as well as extra burden for police, so that is a concern."
West Suffolk councillor John Burns pointed out that Haverhill's former magistrates' court was a suitable site, while the closure of courts in Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft in 2016, which Mr Passmore said he "bitterly opposed" was also raised.
The Ministry of Justice refused to explain why Endeavour House in Ipswich was not deemed feasible, while Mr Passmore has also put forward West Suffolk House in Bury St Edmunds.
An MoJ spokesman said: “We have kept justice moving throughout the pandemic – outstanding magistrates cases are falling and we have over 55 court rooms operating in the South East region.
“We are prioritising urgent cases and investing £450million to increase capacity.”
The MoJ said building alterations at courts in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex had been carried out, while use of video technology and prioritising urgent cases were helping protect the public.
It said that a consultation in 2016 found the Bury and Lowestoft courts were underutilised, and said that disposals at Ipswich Crown Court - cases finishing - were exceeding receipts (new cases).
It said it continued to consider where nightingale courts were needed most to address backlog problems, but refused to say if one was being considered for Suffolk.