Extended court hours will be introduced from this month in the first phase of the government’s plans to tackle the justice backlog. In a coronavirus recovery plan published today, the Ministry of Justice it will also complete the reopening of all courts in July and install screens to combat the risk of spreading infection.
But there is a noticeable lack of detail about other key measures intended to increase sittings: hearings will take place in one of 10 so-called Nightingale pop-up courts from August, but the sites are yet to be identified. There are also no plans outlined for whether the government will push ahead with reducing the number of jurors in trials or even – much to the chagrin of the legal profession – running trials with just a judge and two magistrates.
The plan says: ‘It is clear that while physical distancing restrictions remain in place, we will not be able to work “as normal”: fewer court and tribunal hearing rooms can be used, and cases cannot be listed as efficiently as usual (because the court estate cannot safely accommodate pre-Covid levels of use), and we cannot safely have all staff working in their normal locations.
‘Judges, staff and users have therefore been working closely together as we have developed some more radical steps which we will need to implement to be able to recover our operations, and to ensure people will continue to be able to seek and secure justice through the courts and tribunals.’
By the autumn, the plans set out that more alternative venues will be in use and operating hours extended even further.
There is also an indication that many of the technological developments brought on by the crisis, including the use of remote hearings for certain cases, could become permanent.
With the judiciary, the government will review measures put in place to respond to the pandemic to consider what should be adopted or adapted for use in future. Final decisions on this will be made by the lord chancellor, lord chief justice and senior president of tribunals.