Lawyers demand action on ‘Blackstone courts’ amid reports one will be in MoJ headquarters

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By CJ McKinney on

The locations are still officially under wraps

Ministry of Justice

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is set to announce the locations of temporary “Blackstone courts” to help clear the trial backlog — including, reports suggest, one hosted in the department’s own headquarters.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has approved ten sites for temporary use as courtrooms, increasing the amount of physical space in the court system so that socially distanced trials can take place. While an announcement of the locations is expected soon, they haven’t yet been unveiled — despite Buckland telling MPs three weeks ago that he had already signed them off.

Lawyers are growing impatient, with Bar Council chief Amanda Pinto reportedly pressing for an announcement on the locations “sooner rather than later”. Fellow barristers have taken to Twitter to complain that the MoJ have had months to get the project going and urge Buckland to “get on with it“.

The Mail on Sunday has reported that one of those locations is in Ministry of Justice headquarters in London. “The tenth floor of the MoJ’s cavernous building in Petty France, which is currently occupied by 75 press officers, is being lined up for the new facilities.”

The ’75 press officers’ detail was widely ridiculed on legal Twitter, but the department denies it, telling Legal Cheek that there are only about 25.

A spokesperson also told us that, while there are meeting rooms in the Petty France HQ, there was no question of moving people’s desks around to convert offices into courts.

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The planned temporary courts are widely known as “Nightingale courts” after the temporary NHS Nightingale hospitals, although the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland insists that they will be known as “Blackstone courts” after the famous 18th century judge.

The locations have not yet been announced, although the Telegraph reports that they could be unveiled in the next week. The MoJ would only say that there will be an announcement in due course; the official coronavirus recovery plan calls for the temporary venues to start operating in August.

A spokesperson said: “We’ve kept the justice system running throughout the pandemic and have identified an initial 10 buildings we could use as courts while social distancing rules are in place.”

Buckland’s coronavirus recovery plan also includes some extended opening hours in courts from this month, which would then be rolled out more widely in the autumn.

This has proved controversial. Lawyers point out that the backlog of criminal trials was already massive before coronavirus, and argue that the crisis is just an excuse to make them work all hours.

A group called Women in Law says that the proposal would “disproportionately disadvantage female lawyers”. Its founder, Katy Thorne QC, writes in The Times that “longer working hours would drive many out of the profession altogether and reverse the improvement in diversity we have achieved in the past decade”.

Buckland has said that the idea has “overwhelming support” from the legal profession. The Bar Council’s response was a bit rogue — a sign perhaps of the strength of feeling on the issue.

Pinto said that the extended hour plans were “an impossibility” for many practitioners, complaining that the MoJ is going through the motions of consultation while “telling the media that this is a fait accompli“.

She added that “this doesn’t feel transparent let alone respectful of those who are trying to engage positively to help. Is this what it’s like to be dumped on Twitter rather than face to face?”

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