19 March, 2020
On 18 March 2020, the Lord Chancellor affirmed that "the rule of law is vital to a functioning democracy and even at times like these, it is essential that our independent courts are able to administer justice."
Whilst many public places have either been ordered by the Government to close, or are closing of their own discretion, Courts have a critical role in society in delivering justice and at the time of writing, they remain sitting across England and Wales and public galleries remain open. Nevertheless, staff absences have resulted in reduced capacity across most courts and cases due to be heard in a Crown Court with an expected hearing time of over three days will now be postponed.
Government guidance on the Coronavirus Bill has been published and aims to shed some light on how the justice system aims to keep functioning during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bill will:
At present, it is essentially 'business as usual' in the courts, however it is likely that as the country moves towards a total lockdown in all other areas of life, the Courts will too have no choice but to follow. In terms of what this will look like, jury trials will be unlikely to be heard and only wholly necessary and urgent trials may be heard, potentially where there is a public interest element. Critically, it is also expected for there to be a marked increase in the range and use of proceedings being carried out by video and audio. Courts are currently rapidly extending their capabilities to be able to provide such services, for example by working on their Justice Video Service to increase the number of hearings which can be heard at once on laptops; increasing the number of licenses for BT Meet Me, which is a system that records hearings to a standard acceptable in the justice system; and activating Skype for Business on all staff and judicial laptops. Staff are receiving training on all of these recent changes.
On the topic of technology, a barrister turned to Twitter on 16 March 2020 to highlight her disappointment that upon attempting to get a trial adjourned as one of the witnesses had suspected COVID-19, she was told by court staff that she would have to make a formal application and pay for this. A Judge at the court saw the tweet and allowed the adjournment. Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that during such unprecedented times, the Courts will be overwhelmed with enquiries and requests for an assortment of things to be changed or moved, and guidance is changing daily.
We will continue to monitor all Government and HMCTS guidance on COVID-19 regarding the justice system.