Inevitably a decision has been made to close over half of the Courts. Essentially the Courts are now on shutdown and it remains to be seen whether fee paid judges will be kept on during this period. It is understandable why this decision was made as many Court staff and judges were understandably worried about becoming ill or spreading the virus. These are obviously unprecedented times.
At the same time, normal cancellation rules will apply to fee paid judges. Over 70s will be cancelled.
Many fee paid judges had sitting days booked for April and May. Previously the policy was that if caused by coronavirus, cancellations would be paid for. That really meant that cancellations would be paid for as trials were being vacated as a matter of course without converting them to video or telephone hearings. Members have now started receiving cancellations. There is nothing we can do about this other than make representations.
Fee paid judges are adept at dealing with remote working and so it is disappointing that they were not consulted about this as we could have helped to keep the system going. Last week fee paid judges carried out telephone hearings and were willing to undertake video hearings as well. We could also do box work from home.An opportunity appears to have been missed. Many fee paid judges were happy to continue supporting the justice system and preventing backlogs.
As things stand it is unclear whether fee paid judges will be able to be furloughed as we receive payment by PAYE and cannot control our hours of working so although office holders we are akin to employees. We are seeking clarification.
In the meantime we hope everyone in the justice system remains safe.
The below is an extract from the Law Society Gazette:
A priority network of 158 court buildings will remain open for essential face-to-face hearings. This represents 43% of the 371 Crown, magistrates’ and family courts across England and Wales. A further 124 court and tribunal buildings, which are conducting hearings remotely, will remain closed to the public but open to HM Courts & Tribunal staff and the judiciary.
The Ministry of Justice said the temporary changes, designed in partnership with HMCTS and the judiciary, will ‘help maintain a core justice system focused on the most essential cases’. It added that the closures will ensure effective social distancing for all court users and for cleaning and security work to be focused on fewer buildings.
Lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP said: ‘We are facing an unprecedented challenge and the government’s absolute priority is to save lives and protect the NHS. With each part of our justice system – from police to probation – dependent on one another, it is vital that we keep our courts running.
The lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, added: ‘An extraordinary amount of hard work has gone into keeping our justice system functioning. Technology is being used creatively to ensure that many cases can continue. Not everything can be dealt with remotely and so we need to maintain functioning courts.
‘These temporary adjustments to how we use the court estate will help ensure that we can continue to deal with work appropriately in all jurisdictions whilst safeguarding the well-being of all those who work in and visit the courts.’
Journalists and members of the public will be able to attend priority court hearings in person, if safe to do so in line with Public Health England guidance. Where this is not possible, judicial consideration will be given to them joining a hearing remotely or a having a transcript provided afterwards.
The measures will come into effect on Monday and will be kept in place ‘for as long as necessary to comply with government and public health advice and will be reviewed regularly’.
Responding to the announcement, the Law Society said that the safety of people using the justice system was paramount. ‘We recognise that it is impossible for HMCTS to maintain a full complement of courts open to the public at this time; in some courts it is challenging to ensure that people can maintain social distancing,’ said Simon Davis, president. ‘In these difficult circumstances, holding hearings that require physical attendance in a reduced number of courts, and ensuring full safety measures in those courts, is a logical approach.’
He added that it will be essential for the courts to re-open fully once the crisis is over, to avoid any long term restrictions on access to justice.