Justice secretary Robert Buckland QC has reiterated that courts must stay open during the ongoing coronavirus crisis – and hit back at critics calling for a total shutdown.
Buckland appeared before a handful of MPs on the justice select committee yesterday, with the questions mostly concentrated on the government’s response to the pandemic.
He acknowledged the ‘heroic efforts’ of lawyers and other court users to keep trials and hearings going, but conceded many were unhappy about coming into busy court buildings. He said this should not be construed as him thinking they were having a ‘collective whinge in an unjustified way’, but stressed the importance of keeping courts going.
Buckland said: ‘I absolutely take on board their concerns – they are trying to keep an important service going. I get all the tensions here but at the same time all we are trying to do is to try and ensure we can keep a basic service going to avoid the sort of problem you can see coming down the road with a prolonged adjournment and gap during which we cannot function effectively as a justice system.
‘I do not think, with respect to people who have been commenting about this, that it is fair to judge us as harshly as some people are doing bearing in mind the imperative that we have a functioning justice system.’
Responding to Buckland, committee chair Sir Bob Neill said that some of the anger was caused by historic underfunding of the justice sector. Neill cited reports of soap dispensers running empty and lack of hot water in some court buildings.
‘If they are not getting the basics right, how are we going to achieve cleanliness?’ said Neill. ‘It doesn’t sound as if these laudable ideas are being achieved in the process.
‘One of the concerns we have had is there has been concern about a lack of cleanliness in the courts for a long time which has been raised… this is simply building on it.’
The committee heard that the number of remote hearings has increased daily since the escalation of the crisis. HM Courts & Tribunals Service chief executive Susan Acland-Hood, appearing alongside Buckland, said 600 audio hearings were expected to be carried out yesterday, with a further 160 fully video hearings.
HMCTS said today that jury trials that are under way continue, although there are no new jury trials starting. Crown courts are only covering urgent work, with magistrates’ courts only covering overnight custody cases and people brought from prison.
Social distancing measures have been introduced in courts and tribunals where physical attendance is necessary. Juries have been split between sitting in their usual seats and sitting in the public gallery, where appropriate.