The day to day operation of the Courts and Tribunal services has drastically changed. This sharp turnaround comes just weeks after the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCT) apprised the public of their intentions to keep on with business as usual.
The spread of COVID- 19 has continued to accelerate and the current events in Italy and Spain should be of significant concern to us. Without any vaccine to avert the spread of the virus, it seems that the most practical thing to do is to follow the Government’s guidelines as it is the most effective antidote for COVID- 19, these are:
- Home isolation
- Home quarantine
- Social distancing
- Protecting the elderly
- Closure of public gatherings which includes schools and universities.
This is indeed a global pandemic and we, as a civic society must work together in unison to combat the virus.
It is imperative that all industry sectors adhere to the current Government guidelines as this will create an enhanced capacity for our NHS to combat the spread of the virus in the UK. This is presumably the primary reason the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary have vetoed their operational approach and have decided sensibly to not continue business as usual.
The Lord Chief Justice seemed to be constantly balances the needs for access to justice, as well as reviewing our courts’ operational systems; in addition to providing guidelines for judges and others, in the hope of providing and maintaining an effective and operational legal system amid the spread of COVID- 19.
Rightly so, the Judiciary is now operating in tandem with the current guidelines of the Government, which is to take all precautions to avoid unnecessary contact. Their current emphasis seems to be focused on the reduction of physical court hearings and the increased use of remote and virtual systems to conduct crucial hearings via telephone and video as well as the age old tried and tested paper, which is a combination of both modern and old fashion approach to litigation. The Judiciary, it would seem has been catapulted into the 21st Century by hook and by crook.
In terms of current trials, no jury trials or other physical hearings can take place unless it is safe for them to do so. Of particular concern is the measures to ensure social distancing in whilst in the court rooms and in the court buildings; with jurors being furnished with strict guidelines to follow. The Courts have also indicated that existing trials may be adjourned for a short period to put safety measures in place and they will do their utmost to bring existing jury trials to a conclusion. Further, no new trials are to start.
The same considerations, in relation to public health and safety, applies to the Magistrates’ Courts. However, the Magistrates will need to continue to deal with urgent criminal and quasi civil work, in accordance with the Judiciary’s ever evolving Guidance. The Magistrates courts have also been told to use remote hearings if they have the necessary facilities to do so. But do they have the necessary facilities…?
Civil and Family Courts
The Civil and Family Courts have now provided much needed clear guidance on the use of remote hearings and hearings requiring the physical presence of parties and their representatives; and urgent hearings will only take place if a remote hearing is not possible and if the suitable arrangements can be made to ensure safety is paramount. Thankfully the civil Procedure Rules in both the civil and family courts are flexible enough to enable hearings telephone and video link.
In our next article we will deal with the general guidelines on Court Applications to adjourn civil and family hearings because of coronavirus (COVID-19), which seemed to be spearheaded by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCT).