Paul Lazarus Reviews Gradual Reopening of Courts During the Pandemic
During the pandemic, the courts have fallen into three categories, namely suspended (completely closed), staffed (staff and judges working from these buildings but closed to the public) and open (open to the public for essential face to face hearings).
In respect of the number of courts in the open category we are now seeing a significant increase in numbers from today (see list below) in various regions and legal jurisdictions.
As far as the criminal courts are concerned a network of Magistrates courts have been operating throughout the pandemic with open status but not without great difficulty and concern about safety.
Crown Courts have almost exclusively reverted to video and telephone hearings with the parties not attending the court buildings. Judges have appeared variously by video and by attending court buildings in person, but the lists of matters are much reduced. Members of staff in the crown courts are attending and working extremely hard to progress matters. CPS representatives, probation officers, defence solicitors and journalists have been able to join video hearings in the crown court.
There have been some significant achievements in making these changes and it is clear that the dedication and bravery of the court staff in all jurisdictions has been remarkable.
The real problem with regard to criminal cases in particular is the difficulty in reaching resolution. Civil matters have been easier to conclude using video hearings, but the suspension of jury trials is causing huge concern as each day passes.
Sentencing has been taking place on video. Defendants on bail have been attending pre-trial preparation hearings in the Crown Court via Skype whilst defendants in custody have appeared via prison video link where possible. The court of appeal has continued to hear cases remotely and now some cases are being heard in person.
The most bizarre and perhaps innovative example of a pre-hearing conference that I have experienced during this period occurred at Southwark Crown Court when the clerk of the court physically carried out a laptop linked to me from court to the video link room in the corridor. The defendant in custody was waiting on another screen in that room so that a screen to screen meeting could take place. This was not ideal but certainly memorable. Another less successful example occurred where my conference discussing sentence was interrupted swiftly by the Judge remarking that he probably shouldn’t be linked in yet!
The Magistrates Court and the Youth Court have continued to hear trials where possible. A very small number of jury trials have taken place recently but there is still great uncertainty about when the resumption of jury trials en masse will take place.
The plan is apparently to move all courts to “open” status by the end of June, but it is clear that jury trials will not be up and running by then. Parties will no doubt continue to attend via video for some time in all jurisdictions.
The fact that more courts will be categorised as “open” from today does not really describe the position on the ground. Many of the courts on the list published below will be well known to practitioners as cramped and previously neglected which will cause concern as to how this is all going to work in practice. The official line from the MOJ/HMCTS is not rich in detail when it comes to the reality of the situation. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/more-face-to-face-hearings-as-courts-reopen
Whilst this development gives some encouragement, it is ultimately a small step on a long and difficult journey.
Details of courts and tribunals buildings to reopen w/c 8 June 2020
Barnet Civil and Family Centre, Ealing Magistrates, Edmonton County and Family Court, Harrow Crown, Inner London Crown, Kingston Crown, Mayor’s and City of London, Romford Magistrates, Southwark Crown
Chesterfield and Mansfield Justice Centre, Derby Combined, Derby Justice Centre, Hereford Crown, Hereford Justice Centre, Lincoln County, Northampton Combined, Redditch Magistrates, Stafford Combined, Stoke Combined, Walsall County, Warwickshire South Justice Centre, Wolverhampton County, Worcester Combined
Sheffield Magistrates, Teesside Combined, York Crown
Birkenhead County, Bolton Crown, Burnley Combined (for civil matters only), Chester Crown, Crewe Magistrates, Lancaster County, Leyland FHC, Preston Magistrates, St Helens County
Aylesbury Crown, Basildon Combined, Bedford County and Family, Canterbury Combined, Horsham Law Courts (Magistrates, County and Family), Ipswich Crown, Slough County, Southend County, St Albans Crown
Plymouth Crown, Plymouth Magistrates, Salisbury Law Courts (County, Crown and Magistrates)
Llandudno Magistrates, Merthyr Tydfil Combined, Newport Crown
25 Bedford Row