Coronavirus and the courts

The impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on the courts is under constant review and regular updates are being posted by the relevant authorities. The Coronavirus Bill is due to be implemented today and the government is hoping to keep the justice system operating throughout the crisis.

During the current phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, courts and tribunals will continue as usual. However, any new trials expected to take longer than three days will not take place in England and Wales.

Lord Chief Justice, The Lord Burnett of Maldon said: “In all jurisdictions steps are being taken to enable as many hearings as possible to be conducted with some or all of the participants attending by telephone, video-link or online. Many court hearings will be able to continue as normal with appropriate precautions being taken. We must make every effort to maintain a functioning court system in support of the administration of justice and rule of law.

“Trials in the Crown Court present particular problems in a fast-developing situation because they require the presence in court of many different participants including the judge, the jury, a defendant, lawyers and witnesses as well as staff. Given the risks of a trial not being able to complete, I have decided that no new trial should start in the Crown Court unless it is expected to last for three days or less. All cases estimated to last longer than three days listed to start before the end of April 2020 will be adjourned. These cases will be kept under review and the position regarding short trials will be revisited as circumstances develop and in any event next week. As events unfold decisions will be taken in respect of all cases awaiting trial in the Crown Court.”

Under today’s proposed Bill, the government is expected to make the use of audio and video technology more widely available within the court system.

Judges can consider audio or video links in several circumstances. Such as, if a defendant does not need to attend in person an application to appeal refusal of bail in the crown court, or in preliminary and enforcement hearings.

However, despite preparations to use video and phone technology more extensively, the Bar Council, which represents more than 17,000 barristers in England and Wales, is urging the government to stop jury trials immediately.

In response to concerns around COVID-19 in court, Amanda Pinto QC, Chair of the Bar Council, said:

“We are calling for the Ministry of Justice to put an urgent halt to jury trials for the time being. Barristers up and down the country are telling us that jurors are having to drop out of cases because they are self-isolating or, worse, coming to court when they should not, and thereby putting everyone’s health at risk. Being in a jury trial should not be a game of Russian Roulette with the participants’ health. All those involved in court proceedings, be they barristers, witnesses, defendants, jurors or members of the public (let alone court staff and judges), should not be expected to attend court, whilst the rest of the country is very strongly urged to work from home and to avoid ‘non-essential contact’ and ‘confined spaces’.

 “The Bar Council believes that it is vital that the justice system functions as far as possible but putting people’s health – and in some cases lives – at risk in our courts when this is avoidable, must stop immediately. We know there are plans to use more video and phone technology for court hearings whilst the coronavirus persists, but we must be realistic; requiring groups of strangers to gather closely together is quite contrary to current government advice. We urge the Ministry of Justice to adapt quickly to this rapidly changing environment, by continuing proceedings where possible, but without juries and by not requiring judges, barristers and others to attend hearings in person.”

Useful links:

HM Courts and Tribunals Service

Legal Aid Agency