Emergency legislation will be brought forward to allow more video hearings as part of measures to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

The government announced today it will bring forward the COVID-19 Emergency Bill this month as plans continue to move from ‘contain’ to ‘delay’.

Ministers are considering allowing certain civil proceedings in the magistrates’ courts to be conducted via telephone or video, as well as the expansion of audio and video live links in various criminal proceedings.

The provisions will ensure individuals who may be forced to self-isolate are still able to appeal to a court, while ensuring courts can continue to operate even in the height of an epidemic.

The use of video links has increased in recent years – sometimes with mixed results – so the courts should in theory be able to adapt to litigants or defendants appearing remotely. But there will also be concerns about the efficiency and reliability of the technology. In civil proceedings, video hearings have been tested to a very limited degree, and there will be close scrutiny of how government proposals will ensure access to justice. Critics of online justice will be anxious for assurance that new procedures are limited to the duration of the current pandemic emergency. 

No timescale for the bill has been given, but clearly ministers will want to legislate as soon as possible, and it is likely to be implemented this month.

HM Courts & Tribunals Service last week updated its security policy to allow hand sanitiser to be brought into courts, with visitors asked to use it ‘to prove it’s not harmful’.

The government’s coronavirus action plan states that advice has been provided to prison and probation services.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has outlined how volunteers – who already play a central role in helping the health and social care system function – will be given additional employment safeguards so they can leave their main jobs and temporarily volunteer in the event of a widespread pandemic.

Hancock said: ‘Responding to coronavirus is a massive national effort and I’m working with colleagues across government to ensure we have a proportionate emergency bill, with the right measures to deal with the impacts of a widespread COVID-19 outbreak.’

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