There are many barristers who like to imagine they could have succeeded on the stage, hamming it up in their wigs and gowns and addressing the jury like Laurence Olivier doing Richard III.
On Monday, a select group of lawyers will have their chance to perform at the theatre for real, when one of the biggest arts venues in the north-west of England transforms into a “Nightingale court”.
The Lowry in Salford is the latest building to be repurposed by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to help tackle what the director of public prosecutions has called “corrosive” delays in the court system.
Four court rooms will be in operation on Salford Quays from next week as the MoJ rushes to get through its 46,467-strong backlog of crown court cases. Three will hear crown court cases and the last, normally a conference room, will host tribunals.
The hot ticket for silks with thespian ambitions will undoubtedly be courtroom one in the Quays Theatre, the smaller of the Lowry’s two stages.
There, the judge will appear from the wings, administering justice below a huge coat of arms suspended in the air by the sort of strings which usually make Tinkerbell fly in the Christmas pantomime. They will be given their own dressing room in the bowels of the building. Jurors, meanwhile, get the best seats in the house, each allocated a box designed for six.
The defendant(s) sit at the back in what would often be the sound booth. Unlike in a real crown court, there is no bullet-proof dock: the Nightingale courts will only try defendants not judged a flight risk and accused of less serious crimes.
Most will walk through the front door and the hastily assembled airport scanners, having been granted bail at an earlier hearing. No one will go straight from the Lowry to prison, all sentencing will be adjourned to the real crown court at a later date.
Julia Fawcett, the Lowry’s chief executive, insists the theatre’s lighting will be at its most sober, no spotlights for QCs delivering their opening speeches, no sudden cuts to black when the prosecution produces a smoking gun.
“Coming to court is a serious business,” she said on Tuesday, as an army of MoJ employees busied about testing video-links and learning their way around the labyrinthine building. “It is very important that there is dignity and accountability.”
It has been a torrid six months for an organisation which receives just 6% of its turnover from public funds. Though it was able to furlough most of its 250 staff and received £1.2m from the Arts Council in summer, the Lowry didn’t qualify for many of the government’s Covid business grants.
The MoJ deal is a “crucial lifeline” for the Lowry, said Fawcett. Without it, the venue would end the year £20m down, having lost 95% of its usual £22m annual income. By keeping its biggest theatre free of trials, the venue hopes to welcome audiences again at the end of November with a socially distant version of Six, a musical about Henry VIII’s wives.
Fawcett wouldn’t reveal how much the MoJ deal is worth, saying only that it was a “significant” sum but “not even remotely enough” to cover the Lowry’s losses. The MoJ said the figure was confidential while the government worked to secure other venues in Chester, Liverpool, Bristol, Winchester and Cirencester.
Two other Nightingale courts will open on Monday – the Hilton Hotel in York, which will hear family cases, and the Jurys Inn in Middlesbrough, which will hear both civil and family cases.
They bring the total number of Nightingale courts to 17, providing 32 court rooms, the MoJ said, with the existing sites operating at 80% capacity, which is higher than the average court prior to the pandemic.
In February there were 101,000 live Crown Prosecution Service cases, according to Max Hill, the director of public prosecutions. But by the start of this month the figure had jumped by 75% to almost 180,000.
“What comes with any backlog is the necessity for the participants in cases to wait, and that can be very corrosive,” he said, “particularly when you’ve got a vulnerable victim of an appalling crime who is made to wait because they can tell their truth in court”.