The Lord Chancellor has agreed that there should be no constraints in the number of sitting days available during the COVID-19 recovery period for the courts or any hesitation in using fee-paid and deputy judges to fill any gaps which cannot be filled by the salaried judiciary, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett and Lord Justice Lindblom have revealed.
“It is now all hands to the pump,” the two judges said in a message on reopening the courts.
Their comments came as HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) published a court and tribunal recovery update setting out the work being undertaken in the short and medium terms in response to COVID-19.
This update says, amongst other things, that HMCTS is now working with the judiciary to increase the volume of hearings conducted across all jurisdictions with the aim of getting back to "and then above" pre-covid levels in each jurisdiction.
HMCTS also said it was planning a range of measures across jurisdictions including to: reopen all courts and tribunals which have been closed to the public; review and implement measures to ensure vulnerable users are supported during COVID-19; explore options for extended operating hours to increase capacity; and use other buildings as courts to increase capacity.
It will also increase the use of audio and video technology for more and new types of hearings, “subject to the interests of justice”; further rollout Cloud Video Platform (CVP) and new hardware to improve the quality of video hearings”; find new, increasingly efficient ways of organising video lists; deploy laptops to all staff; support judges to list in ways that make full use of the space that can be safely used; and support Alternative Dispute Resolution for cases where it is appropriate.
In relation to individual jurisdictions the update revealed that the HMCTS is currently focusing on:
- Criminal: restarting jury trials in more courts each week; continuing to prepare cases intensively so that wherever it is in the interests of justice, cases can be resolved rapidly without a full trial; continuing to increase listing in Magistrates’ Courts to hear full range of work in line with the listing guidance issued by the judiciary.
- Civil: increasing listing for cases across county courts; testing the use of Cloud Video Platform so that all courts are covered by the end of July; working with the judiciary, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and third sector representatives to plan recommencing of possession cases in August; transfer some costs assessments to the Legal Aid Agency (following consultation).
- Family: increasing capacity for physical hearings so that complex contested cases not suitable for hearing remotely are heard – “these hearings may be fully attended in person, or may be ‘hybrid’ (where some parties attend and the remainder engage remotely) to support social distancing”; encouraging uptake of online channels for divorce and probate where possible.
- Tribunals: accelerating planned reforms that will help manage cases more effectively during Covid-19 in the Employment Tribunal and Employment Appeal Tribunal; using flexibilities introduced for Tribunals through temporary rules and emergency practice directions by the Senior President – “this includes cross-assignment of judges across the first tier Tribunal, provisions relating to recording and remote hearings and provisions to allow for more appeals to be heard on the papers”; and establishing a pilot of the HMCTS video hearings service in the First tier Tribunal Property and Tax Chambers.
The HMCTS update also information on completing the courts’ recovery and looking to the future.
The LCJ and Lord Justice Lindblom described the response to the coronavirus as “in effect, the largest justice sector pilot ever conducted in this country”.
They said: “This recovery plan [from HMCTS] sets out details for reopening venues. You may have seen that the majority of courts and tribunal buildings are set to reopen by the end of June, with the remainder opening as soon as it is safe for them to do so in line with public health guidance; the safety of all court users remains a priority.
“Local leadership judges will also be looking to list creatively and to stagger and extend sitting times, with the potential to start hearings at different times of day and to sit at weekends.”
The LCJ and Lord Justice Lindblom added: “As we move into this next phase, which will enable more cases to be heard, and heard safely, we are grateful for the continued efforts being made to administer justice and keep our justice system running.”