Whilst courts throughout Europe shut down and even the European Court of Human Rights (France) cancels hearings listed for March and April, the courts of England & Wales carry on regardless. The goal being to uphold the administration of justice and the rule of law amidst the COVID 19 pandemic.
How the Rules assist
The Civil Procedure Rules and Family Procedure Rules have long since given the judiciary considerable flexibility and discretion. Whilst Judges continue to have the final say on how hearings are conducted, this flexibility enables them to take steps to ensure hearings can go ahead and justice is seen to be done, during this difficult time.
However, with age comes experience, and our vastly experienced Judiciary largely fall into the high-risk category that must be protected. Not to be beaten, the courts are putting in place measures which (currently) will ensure cases can go ahead wherever possible.
The Business and Property courts (together with the Queen’s Bench Division) are ahead of the curve by their compulsory use of electronic filing (CE-filing). This has enabled court staff to work from home and process courts papers remotely. The courts have also issued a directive not to reject e-filing during this period.
Audio & video technology
Audio and video conferencing have been prevalent in the Justice system for some time, actively encouraged by the Lord Chief Justice. We can now see the important role such technological advances are to play during this pandemic. Platforms used include Skype and BT conferencing.
Remote hearings remain at the Judge’s discretion however, the Coronavirus Bill published by the Department of Health and Social Care, expands on the availability of audio and video links in court proceedings. Whilst the Judiciary will have the final say on how a hearing will be conducted, this allows the courts to function and provides access to justice during this time, without the need for personal attendances. Currently, public galleries are to remain open, but we envisage this will change.
In respect of Tribunals, the Senior President of Tribunals is preparing Practice Directions to set out the rules around remote hearings, but such technology is available, as and when the Tribunal deems it fit.
To join, users will need a phone or computer with internet access, a webcam and microphone.
Trials that have started will generally be completed, but may well be via audio or video links. The courts are currently listing new trials from the summer, but all measures are kept under daily review.
Access the courts
Currently, the courts are open. Security will now allow you to bring in hand sanitisers. However, the court counters are being reduced and consolidated and, the use of ‘dropbox’ facilities have been increased to decrease the amount of social interaction.
Criminal trials that have started are expected to complete. Trials listed for a maximum of three days are expected to start. Trials over three days will be adjourned until after the end of April 2020; this may be subject to change.
The additional issue the criminal courts have had to face is the use of Juries and thus the increase in public interaction.
The criminal courts use a Justice Video Service (JVS) which was designed to connect endpoints, such as prisons, courts and police stations. This is now being adapted to enable criminal trials to be held. Emergency legislation is being drafted and expected to expand on the use of technology for criminal trials.