Over half of court and tribunal buildings are to close during the coronavirus pandemic to reduce the risk of court users spreading the infection, the government announced this morning.
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.
‘This will only be done while ensuring the safety of the public, judges, legal professionals, staff and all those attending hearings and I’d like to thank everyone for their extraordinary efforts so far.’
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.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.