The Lord Chancellor has said the vital work of courts and tribunals “can and should continue”, with the use of remote hearings wherever appropriate, during the latest national lockdown.
Robert Buckland tweeted: “Our courts & tribunals continue to be an essential public service, served by essential workers and meeting Covid-secure standards endorsed by public health officials.”
The Lord Chancellor’s comments were echoed by Courts Minister Chris Philp. He tweeted: “Courts & tribunals are an essential public service. Their work continues either remotely or in person, meeting COVID-secure guidelines, incl jury trials. Professional users, jurors & witnesses should continue to attend. We are grateful for all you do to ensure access to justice.”
“Anyone needing to attend Court (legal professionals, court staff, jurors, witnesses etc) count as key workers and their children are therefore eligible to be looked after at school
“We have spent over £110m in recent months to make Courts Covid safe. Where hearings can be done remotely they should be, but where a case has to be heard in person it should go ahead, including Jury trials. Those attending Court in person should wear a face mask at all times.”
A message from the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Bar and Circuit Leaders said they had asked HMCTS, the Lord Chancellor and the Senior Judiciary "for absolute clarity as to what the new lockdown means for the business of the Courts. As soon as we receive that clear guidance we will pass it on to you."
In the meantime they said their joint position was that members should continue to attend at Court unless they are instructed not to do so by the judge conducting their hearing. “The guidance published on gov.uk tonight makes it plain that courts remain open and that those involved in the court system are exempt from lockdown rules.”
They added in the message that it was their “clear expectation” that judges in all jurisdictions would move to the remote hearing of cases wherever possible and as soon as possible. “We hope that may be as soon as tomorrow morning in some courts. Indeed, some courts have already indicated that the default position is that all hearings save for trials will be remote. This is no more than common sense and respects the stricture to work from home unless you are unable to do so.”
The Bar leaders said trials and other contested hearings were “obviously the priority and by moving other hearings to remote platforms courts will be better able to ensure that those hearings continue during this new national lockdown”.
UPDATE: The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has today (5 January) issued the following statement:
“We have now entered lockdown for the third time. The courts and tribunals must continue to function. The position remains that attendance in person where necessary is permitted under the proposed new regulations. This would include jurors, witnesses, and other professionals, who count as key workers. HMCTS will continue to put in place precautionary measures in accordance with Public Health England and Public Health Wales guidelines to minimise risk. All those attending court must abide by guidance concerning social distancing, hand washing, wearing masks etc. Judges and magistrates will have a role in making sure this happens.
In all our jurisdictions work, including jury trials, will continue as it did during the lockdown in November and, after initial hiccups, in the earlier and longer lockdown.
The success of the courts and tribunals in England and Wales in continuing to uphold the rule of law and sustain the administration of justice since March has been remarkable.
The significant increase in the incidence of COVID-19 coupled with the increase in rates of transmission makes it all the more important that footfall in our courts is kept to a minimum. No participant in legal proceedings should be required by a judge or magistrate to attend court unless it is necessary in the interests of justice. Facilitating remote attendance of all or some of those involved in hearings is the default position in all jurisdictions, whether backed by regulations or not.
The next few weeks will present difficulties in all jurisdictions. But as before judges, magistrates, staff, the legal profession and others involved in the system will meet them and ensure that the administration of justice continues to function in the public interest.”