Venues such as sports halls and hotel conference rooms are being considered for court hearings to clear any backlog caused by the coronavirus lockdown, the lord chief justice revealed today.
Lord Burnett of Maldon told the House of Commons justice committee today that such temporary court venues are most likely to be used in civil, family and tribunal proceedings.
He said that ‘with a little bit of luck’ all courts could be open again by the end of June, although the need for social distancing will inevitably mean that the existing estate will struggle to meet demand. Already 1,400 cases are waiting to go from the magistrates’ court to the Crown court, with the backlog increasing all the time.
Lord Burnett added: ‘[Alternative accommodation] is being looked at and might provide an opportunity for courts to be freed up to be used for the cases that really can’t be dealt with anywhere else.’
The lord chief justice confirmed that discussions – although no further than that – have taken place for a ‘menu and list of options’ for how to ensure trials can go ahead within government guidance on social distancing. These options include reducing juries to seven members and having judge-led trials – although this would be a last resort.
Lord Burnett added: ‘If we don’t think about it now and only start thinking about it months ahead when things have got no better, we will be building up a backlog of cases which will take a very long time to clear.’
Committee members asked questions on a range of issues, including arrangements for vulnerable court users if the courts service adopts more remote hearings after the crisis eases. Lord Burnett said it will remain a ‘fundamental starting point’ that nobody should be forced to use digital courts if they do not have the capacity.
On paying for the modernisation programme, Burnett admitted to ‘nervousness’ which would be shared by anybody responsible for an organisation that relies on public funding at this time.
He added: ‘Administration of justice has been something of a Cinderella over the last decades. Its funding has never been lavish, its funding has never been protected because it is a subpart of the Ministry of Justice whose funding was not protected.’