Numbers in court should be ‘kept to a minimum’ – top judge

The number of people in courts should be “kept to a minimum” amid a surge in coronavirus cases, according to the most senior judge in England and Wales.

Speaking on Tuesday after the third national lockdown for England was announced, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett said: “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.”

It comes after the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said that courts and tribunals “continue to be an essential public service, served by essential workers and meeting Covid-secure standards endorsed by public health officials,” adding that “with the use of remote hearings wherever appropriate, this vital work can and should continue”.

Meanwhile the inquest into the death of Leon Briggs – a man who died after being restrained by police in November 2013 – which was due to take place in Milton Keynes, was postponed until Monday to allow more coronavirus safety measures to be put in place.

In a statement, the Lord Chief Justice said courts “must continue to function” during the third lockdown and jurors, witnesses and legal professionals who are considered key workers can continue to attend in person where necessary.

But he added: “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.”

Precautionary measures as well as instructions on wearing masks and maintaining social distancing have already become commonplace in courts over the last few months, but the Lord Chief Justice said judges and magistrates “have a role in making sure this happens”.

The next few weeks will “present difficulties in all jurisdictions”, but staff and professionals will ensure the “administration of justice continues to function in the public interest”, he added.

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