Many jurisdictions throughout the world have closed their courts and are operating only on an emergency basis. However, the judicial system in England and Wales is adopting a "new normal".
Measures introduced by the government and the judiciary have allowed courts to continue to function. These measures 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, claimants and defendants.
Priority physical courts
A network of priority courts buildings will remain open during the coronavirus pandemic to make sure the justice system continues to operate effectively. The work of courts and tribunals will be consolidated into fewer buildings, maintaining the safety of all in the courts and in line with public health advice.
There are 157 priority court and tribunal buildings open for essential face-to-face hearings.
In addition, rules of court dealing with civil matters, make provision for hearings to be conducted remotely, by video and audio during the COVID-19 outbreak and clarify the way in which the court may exercise its discretion to do so.
In considering the suitability of video/audio, judges will consider issues such as: the nature of the matters at stake during the hearing; any issues the use of video/audio technology may present for participants in the hearing, having regard to individuals’ needs; and any issues around public access to the hearing.
The courts are making wide use of existing technology from teleconferencing, videoconferencing as well as a cloud video platform. A series of guidelines have been published as well as new Practice Direction 51Y under the Civil Procedure Rules.
Hearings that cannot be heard by video or telephone and which cannot be delayed will be held in a priority court or tribunal, except in exceptional circumstances.
Media and members of the public will be able to attend priority court hearings in person, if safe to do so in line with Public Health England guidance, thereby ensuring the principle of open justice. The guidance states that where this is not possible, judicial consideration will be given to them joining a hearing remotely or a transcript being provided afterwards.
Continued access to justice
In addition, a further 124 court and tribunal buildings will remain closed to the public but open to HM Courts and Tribunal (HMCTS) staff, the judiciary and those from other agencies. These ‘staffed courts’, will support video and telephone hearings, progress cases without hearings and ensure continued access to justice. All remaining courts and tribunals will close temporarily.
Finally, HM Courts and Tribunals Service is publishing a daily operational summary on courts and tribunals during the COVID-19 outbreak, which can be found here. The page is intended to be updated daily by 9.00am.
It is clear that access to justice can be maintained in these difficult times.
The Lord Chief Justice said: “An extraordinary amount of hard work has gone into keeping our justice system functioning. Technology is being used creatively to ensure that many cases can continue. Not everything can be dealt with remotely and so we need to maintain functioning courts. “These temporary adjustments to how we use the court estate will help ensure that we can continue to deal with work appropriately in all jurisdictions whilst safeguarding the well-being of all those who work in and visit the courts.”