Chichester Crown Court to re-open as temporary courtroom

Chichester Crown Court is set to re-open as a temporary courtroom to help ‘reduce delays and deliver speedier justice for victims’ amid the pandemic.
Campaigners protesting the closure of the crown court back in 2016Campaigners protesting the closure of the crown court back in 2016
Campaigners protesting the closure of the crown court back in 2016

It was of 14 new ‘Nightingale courts’ announced today by the Ministry of Justice as part of a £113m investment to alleviate pressures on courts and tribunals.

The Observer understands the court in Chichester, which has been closed for several years, is expected to be operational from April.

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The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, said: “We have achieved an immense amount in our battle to keep justice moving during the pandemic – restarting jury trials before anyone else, turbo-charging the rollout of video technology, bringing magistrates’ backlogs down, and opening more courtrooms for jury trials.

Edward Cooke at East Pallant House, which was used as a Nightingale court last yearEdward Cooke at East Pallant House, which was used as a Nightingale court last year
Edward Cooke at East Pallant House, which was used as a Nightingale court last year

“These new courts are the latest step in that effort, and I am determined to minimise delays and ensure justice is served for victims, defendants and the public.

“That is why we are investing hundreds of millions to drive this recovery further, deliver swifter justice and support victims.”

Gillian Keegan, the MP for Chichester, said: “The Government have done a huge amount of work to keep justice going despite the pandemic.

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“So far remote hearings have increased by 4000% over the past year.

Mr Cooke outside Chichester County Court in 2016Mr Cooke outside Chichester County Court in 2016
Mr Cooke outside Chichester County Court in 2016

“Across the country hearings have continued, especially to handle urgent cases such as protecting children from abuse, with 9,000 such court orders provided over a six month period last year.

“I am working closely with the Ministry of Justice and the local authorities to enable socially distanced trials to go ahead and ensure we can support our local communities to have access to justice.”

The news was welcomed by Edward Cooke, a Chichester family law solicitor who led a years-long campaign to keep court provision in Chichester after the closure of the Chichester Combined Court was announced in 2016.

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He said the re-opening of the court was a ‘phoenix from the ashes’ moment and hugely symbolic for the justice system both locally but also nationally.

However he called for Mr Buckland to go further and reinstate the Combined Court centre in Chichester permanently.

He said: “The court centre has sat vacant for the last three years, completely unused, while delays in the justice system have got worse and worse.

“The only thing that has happened in that period is that weeds have grown around the Combined Court site.”

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When the closure of the court was announced five years ago, it was ‘a busy court centre’ providing a ‘vital service’ to its local community, Mr Cooke said.

“Its closure was opposed not just by people like me, but by many other local groups, such as Citizens Advice, numerous charities and our then MP Andrew Tyrie,” he said.

“The Chichester Combined Court should never have been closed and I argued vociferously for its retention at the time.

“The Crown Court was the only criminal court in West Sussex and even before its closure, delays in the justice system were awful.

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“These delays have been caused not by the pandemic, but by the wholly misconceived decision by the government in 2016 to close nearly 100 courts, including Chichester, which left the criminal justice system completely unable to cope.

“Imagine the outcry if people were having to wait four years for operations – why should we tolerate as a society the victims of crime having to wait four years for their cases to come to trial?

“These delays hugely affect victims of crime and the most vulnerable in our society.

“A functioning justice system is the bedrock of a civilised society, and it is shocking that this situation has reached this point.”

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The Chichester Crown Court will be the second Nightingale court in Chichester.

The city’s first Nightingale court, at East Pallant House was opened in July 2021 and was the UK’s first Nightingale court for use in civil and family law cases.

East Pallant House, prior to becoming a Nightingale court, had been a hearing centre since January 2019 after a three-year campaign led by Mr Cooke secured its use as a part time court facility.

Mr Cooke, the managing director of Edward Cooke Family Law, said that the fact that Chichester will now have two Nightingale courts ‘emphasized how fundamentally wrong it had been to close the Chichester Combined Court in the first place’.

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“Many people said at the time that we were wasting our time fighting the closure of our courts,” he said.

”The fact that Chichester will once again have two court buildings in operation and that this is now deemed necessary fully vindicates our campaign to fight so hard for their retention.”

The Ministry of Justice has been approached for a comment.