The courts across England and Wales should go on sitting despite the “unprecedented public health emergency”, the Lord Chancellor said yesterday, as the draft Coronavirus Bill is set to make provision for more use of remote hearings.
Robert Buckland QC’s statement focused mainly on the impact of the pandemic on criminal trials, but said: “We will keep the situation under review and continue to listen to feedback from lawyers, court staff and users about how COVID-19 is affecting them and their availability.
“The judiciary and I will issue future statements after considering the most current advice from Public Health England and then explain how this impacts those who are often under a legal obligation to attend court.
“I am particularly grateful to all the staff, legal professionals and judicial office holders, including magistrates, that have worked to keep our courts running so far and I know their commitment to the administration of justice will help this continue.”
There has been widespread pushback from criminal law specialists, both solicitors and barristers, with many noting that Mr Buckland has cancelled his face-to-face constituency surgeries due to the virus.
According to the government, the draft bill will expand the availability of video and audio link in court proceedings, although again the focus seemed more on criminal matters.
“The measures will enable a wider range of proceedings to be carried out by video, so that courts can continue to function and remain open to the public, without the need for participants to attend in person. This will give judges more options for avoiding adjournments and keeping business moving through the courts to help reduce delays in the administration of justice and alleviate the impact on families, victims, witnesses and defendants.”
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, said on Tuesday in a statement that the Civil Procedure Rules and Family Procedure Rules already “provide for considerable flexibility” for judges to use technology in a wider range of hearings.
He said: “It is not realistic to suppose that it will be business as usual in any jurisdiction, but it is of vital importance that the administration of justice does not grind to a halt… Our immediate aim is to maintain a service to the public, ensure as many hearings in all jurisdictions can proceed and continue to deal with all urgent matters.”
A quick survey of some costs firms’ websites and Twitter feeds indicates that some – but certainly not all – have communicated how they are responding to the crisis. Those that have are seeking to reassure clients that they have measures in place to ensure costing continues, with some saying they would prefer to receive all instructions etc electronically but that they are still offering courier pick-up if necessary.
The latest guidance from HM Courts and Tribunals Service can be found here.
Picture credit: gov.uk