In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been operating a reduced number of courts and tribunals from 30 March. According to the MoJ, a total of 157 court and tribunal buildings remain open (42 per cent of the total in England and Wales) for essential face to face hearings (‘Priority courts to make sure justice is served’, MoJ and HMCTS press release, updated 31 March 2020).
The MoJ has also ‘significantly increased’ the number of telephone and video hearings. An updated list of courts and tribunals and their status is available on the HMCTS website (‘Courts and tribunals tracker’: 2 April 2020).
In the MoJ’s press release, the 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.’
Reacting to the news of the reduced service, Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar, said, ‘it makes sense to consolidate our constrained resources to keep the justice system on track’. She also welcomed the increased use of remote hearings and said that it was ‘absolutely crucial that no corners are cut when it comes to hygiene and that all proper precautionary measures are in place to limit the spread of COVID-19’.
In an article in The Times last week (Catherine Baksi, ‘Coronavirus could permanently alter courts’, 2 April 2020), the academic and leading advocate for the use of digital technology in the courts, Richard Susskind, argued that after the COVID-19 crisis has passed, making remote working permanent would prove ‘irresistible’ for policy-makers due to cost savings and increased access to justice. He believes that: ‘Many senior judges will argue strongly for it, especially in lower value cases where it’s proportionate to have a streamlined, quicker, easier system.’
LAG’s director, Carol Storer, agrees that the MoJ has had to react by consolidating the courts and tribunals service into fewer buildings and ramping up remote access ‘as a temporary solution to this crisis’. However, she is concerned that the changes may ‘become permanent by default due to the government’s desire to make budget savings in a post-COVID-19-crisis world.’ Storer warns that ‘remote access does not work for all of the population, especially vulnerable groups. It is essential that there is a lessons learnt exercise, which includes practitioners and representative bodies’ (see also April 2020 Legal Action 3).
The lord chief justice has issued guidance on remote hearings, available at: www.judiciary.uk/announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-message-from-the-lord-chief-justice-to-judges-in-the-civil-and-family-courts/.