The lord chief justice has told advocates that they should not expect preliminary hearings in the criminal courts to be remote as a default measure. Lord Burnett of Maldon even implied some lawyers are not acting ‘in the interests of justice’ by wanting all remote hearings so they can squeeze more into their day.
Speaking to the House of Commons justice committee on Tuesday, Lord Burnett responded to chair Sir Bob Neill’s suggestion that listing decisions in different courts were ‘idiosyncratic’.
Burnett accepted there were some areas of the country where preliminary hearings are more likely to be listed in person but said there are good reasons in those cases for such a decision.
He added: ‘Sometimes the advocates are very keen to attend remotely even if the interests of justice, frankly, should have them present, because you can do a 10 o’clock hearing in Sheffield, an 11 o’clock hearing in Liverpool and a two o’clock hearing in Exeter and so on. The law on this is quite clear. The legislation put in place immediately following the Covid lockdown is that in the criminal courts judges are obliged to allow remote attendance unless it is in the interests of justice to so. That is a test I believe they are consciously applying.’
There have been complaints from some advocates that in-person hearings are being ordered when they are not necessary or where the same procedural tasks can be achieved remotely.
Burnett accepted that there had been ‘grumblings of discontent’ but said when presiding judges asked for specific examples of listing issues then none was put forward.
Committee member Kieran Mullan MP called for judges to apply ‘common sense’ when making decisions about whether to hold remote hearings remotely. ‘There seems to be an enormous variation [between judges] but perhaps there is a middle ground where we could advocate to pick up the low-hanging fruit where people are behaving reasonably.’
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