A two-week suspension of almost all court hearings, including jury trials, may be needed amid rising fears about the spread of coronavirus, solicitors’ leaders have warned.
Protecting court workers and users from the virus is of the “utmost importance” and measures such as a temporary pause are the “least bad option” to ensure courts can operate safely, the Law Society of England and Wales said.
In a letter to HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), the Society said it has maintained throughout the pandemic that it is “essential” for justice to continue to be delivered, but said there are concerns about safety in light of the more transmissible Covid-19 variant circulating in recent weeks.
The Society’s president, David Greene, said if the current situation continues, it is “almost certain” that there will be a “significant loss of capacity” due to court closures caused by outbreaks of the virus.
The organisation suggests a two-week “pause” of all Crown and magistrates’ non-custodial work to allow those involved in court work to assure themselves about the safety of attending court, and to discuss measures to ensure safety.
This should include pausing all Crown and magistrates’ work, including jury trials, except for instances where there are urgent custody matters, such as custody extensions, the Society said.
It also suggests a move to video hearings by default in all Crown and magistrates’ courts.
Mr Greene said: “Throughout the pandemic the Law Society has maintained that it is essential for justice to continue to be delivered.
“However, the safety of both court users and those who work within the justice system is of the utmost importance, especially given the new more easily transmissible coronavirus variant.
“Since the third national lockdown was announced we have received a significant amount of feedback from our members expressing serious concerns about the safety of court buildings, despite assurances from HMCTS that they are Covid-secure for the new variant.”
Mr Greene said the Society has welcomed steps taken by the Government to make court and tribunal buildings as safe as possible, but added that official figures showing record daily numbers of deaths and new infections “cannot be ignored”.
“By its nature, unless remotely accessed, the court process throws people together in limited space,” he said.
“Due to the rapid acceleration of transmission and the ever-increasing pressures on the NHS, we are now in a position where urgent action within the courts must be taken in order to ensure safety and to assist in the process of stemming the rate of infections and in ensuring that the NHS does not become overwhelmed.”
Mr Greene added: “We recognise that this conflicts with the imperative to mitigate the growing backlog of cases in the courts.
“However, if the current situation continues, there is almost certain to be a significant loss of capacity due to court closures following outbreaks of coronavirus, and due to staff, lawyers, judiciary and parties falling sick.
“We believe the measures we propose represent the least bad option for ensuring that courts can continue to operate safely.”
Earlier this week, Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society of England and Wales, told MPs there have been some instances of judges taking “patently unreasonable decisions” requiring in-person hearings.
He told the Commons justice committee: “There are many courts where sensible decisions are being taken but there are some where very minor and administrative hearings are being listed for in-person hearings, judges are refusing requests to have these cases held by video link, including where the advocate has said the reason why they are asking is because they are vulnerable and don’t want to risk exposure.
“There are some cases where judges are taking, what would appear from the outside, to be patently unreasonable decisions to require in-person hearings.”
He said these incidents are “fairly few and far between”.