Calls for Chichester’s former court buildings to be brought back into use

A Chichester lawyer has suggested that the city’s three large former court buildings could be brought back into use as so-called ‘nightingale courts’.

Thursday, 18th June 2020, 10:09 am
The former magistrates' court building in Chichester

It comes after the HM Courts and Tribunals Service said work was underway to identify suitable venues to house ‘nightingale courts’, which would use public spaces – such as civic centres or university moot courts – to allow traditional court buildings to manage more work while maintaining social distancing.

This could be by hosting full hearings or allowing victims and witnesses to attend remotely.

Edward Cooke, who runs his own specialist family law practice in Chilgrove, said it was ‘somewhat ironic’ that the court buildings in Southgate stood ‘entirely vacant at such a time’, pointing out that both the Crown and the Magistrates court buildings were equipped to handle criminal trials.

Edward Cooke runs a specialist family law practice in Chilgrove and is also a national committee member of Resolution, the nationwide organisation of family law professionals

He said: “There are huge backlogs in the criminal justice system and these buildings could yet be brought back into use, if only as a short term measure.”

Chichester Magistrates’ Court was closed in 2016, while the Chichester Combined Court at Southgate was closed at the end of 2018.

Since then, both civil and family hearings have been held at East Pallant House in Chichester thanks to a successful four-year campaign led by Mr Cooke, who fought to secure continued court provision in the city.

Mr Cooke said this ‘pop-up court’ was one of the first in the country and had been ‘very successful’.

It has even been seen as a model for future ‘pop-up’ courts elsewhere in the country.

However due to the pandemic, which saw many courts across the country temporarily close their doors, there have been no face-to-face hearings held in Chichester since March.

Many have instead been carried out remotely using video or phone.

Mr Cooke is among many lawyers and charities warning that remote hearings are not suitable for family cases and should not be used long-term.

While remote hearings have their place when it comes to ‘short, procedural hearings’, he said they could never be ‘an adequate substitute to face-to-face contact’.

“It is vital that judges, social workers and other family justice professionals can see people to make finally balanced decisions that fundamentally affect children and families,” he said.

“So much of communication is non-verbal and is lost where face to face communication does not take place.”

Mr Cooke is a committee member at Resolution, the nationwide organisation of family law professionals, which is ‘deeply concerned’ about the prospect of any further cuts to face-to-face court provision to save money, based on the idea that video hearings had worked during lockdown.

Resolution has said that, before the pandemic, the closure of courts had left people having to travel increasingly-long distances to attend cases, creating ‘substantial’ problems for vulnerable people.

Analysis by the BBC has shown that the closure of Chichester Magistrates’ Court in August 2016 has increased the average distance people need to travel to attend magistrates court hearings by around 20 miles, with most cases now held in Worthing.

Crown court cases are now very often handled in Lewes, which is around 50 miles away, while some family cases involving children are dealt with in Brighton, around 40 miles away.

Mr Cooke said: “In my view these travel distances, particularly given the poor transport network, are wholly unacceptable and we made these representations vociferously when the Ministry of Justice first announced the closures back in 2015.”

An HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesman said: “We continue to work closely with the judiciary to use technology and keep the justice system running during this pandemic.

“Judges will consider the best way for a hearing to take place, taking into account the needs of those participating.”

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