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Network of priority courts launched for essential face-to-face hearings

The Ministry of Justice, HM Courts and Tribunals Service and the judiciary have created a network of 157 priority courts and tribunal buildings that will remain open for essential face-to-face hearings during the coronavirus pandemic to make sure the justice system continues to operate effectively.

This represents 42% of the 370 crown, magistrates, county and family courts and tribunals across England and Wales.

A further 124 court and tribunal buildings will remain closed to the public but open to 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.

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All remaining courts and tribunals will close temporarily.

The temporary changes will “help maintain a core justice system focused on the most essential cases”, the MoJ said, adding that they would also ensure effective social distancing for all court users and for cleaning and security work to be focused on fewer buildings.

Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland said: “We are facing an unprecedented challenge and the government’s absolute priority is to save lives and protect the NHS.

“With each part of our justice system - from police to probation - dependent on one another, it is vital that we keep our courts running.

“This will only be done while ensuring the safety of the public, judges, legal professionals, staff and all those attending hearings and I’d like to thank everyone for their extraordinary efforts so far.”

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.”

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”.

Where this is not possible, judicial consideration will be given to them joining a hearing remotely or a transcript being provided afterwards.

The measures come into effect today (30 March 2020) and will be kept in place for as long as necessary to comply with government and public health advice. They will be reviewed regularly, the MoJ said.

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