Courts in England and Wales will be ‘operating normally’ today, the government has confirmed, despite Boris Johnson’s guidance warning people to avoid unnecessary journeys and work from home if possible.
Justice minister Chris Philp said last night that people who need to self-isolate according to medical advice should do so, but otherwise the system will continue to function in the face of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Philp said: ‘For those not in isolation, justice will continue and jurors should attend court tomorrow as per their summons.’
To confirm that Courts will be operating normally tomorrow. Of course people who need to self-isolate as per the medical advice should do so. But for those not in isolation, Justice will continue and Jurors should attend Court tomorrow as per their Summons— Chris Philp (@CPhilpOfficial) March 16, 2020
His statement drew criticism from several stakeholders in the justice system, with many asking why security staff, lawyers, judges, jurors and defendants should be exposed to risk.
Tristan Kirk, courts correspondent for the London Evening Standard, pointed out the Grenfell Inquiry had been halted because of the virus.
‘I’m struggling to square the PM advice to work from home and courts – a workplace for many - ploughing on with little info on how you can contribute from home,’ he said.
‘PM tells people to avoid non-essential gatherings and contact. I can see a fair few jurors/witnesses/defendants thinking a trip to court isn’t essential right now.’
Blogger the Secret Barrister questioned the suggestion that courts are operating ‘normally’ and described the phrase ‘justice will continue’ as a ‘meaningless slogan, not a strategy’. They added: ‘Defendants are self-isolating in their hundreds, juries are being discharged and trials are collapsing across the country.’
The government is expected to introduce emergency legislation on Thursday to allow greater use of video hearings to carry out court business remotely.
In an update posted yesterday, the Bar Council said it was focusing on helping to limit risks to its members, talking to Whitehall to ensure lawyers’ health was factored into plans to tackle the spread and effects of the virus.
Meanwhile, the government’s impending isolation policy for over-70s could have a direct effect on the Supreme Court, where three judges could potentially be told to stay at home.
Lord Kerr, Lord Wilson and Lady Arden are all aged over 70. Wilson is due to retire and be replaced later this year. The court has a full programme of cases for the coming weeks and months and would struggle to fulfil commitments with members missing.
In updated guidance published today, the court said ther would be no new tour bookings accepted between now and mid-May, existing tour bookings between 17 and 31 March are to be cancelled and, where ticketed, will be refunded. When the court is sitting, members of the public will be allowed admittance to watch cases but not to enter the building for non-court related purposes (for example to visit the café or permanent exhibition area) nor when the court is not sitting.
A spokesperson added: 'Justices, Supreme Court staff, and legal teams presenting cases will continue to be able to work in and visit the building, although we are encouraging home working wherever possible.
'We continue to keep the situation and these measures under constant review, and look forward to announcing when we'll be able to resume normal opening.'
This is just reckless. Everyone is aware that carriers of the virus can present as asymptomatic. In a situation where points of contact between people should be reduced, the MOJ and HMCTS are playing fast and loose with the well being of court staff and users. It’s quite wrong.— Cennydd (@crichards1976) March 17, 2020
I’m pregnant & advised to self-isolate. Colleague kindly covering my hearing at short notice (shouldn’t feel she has to). My partner is a crim barrister in court today in a trial with multiple defendants. Makes no sense. Need proper plan & support for the Bar, not empty slogans.— Agata Patyna (@APatyna) March 17, 2020
Courts are not operating 'normally'.— Jonathan Swain (@jwsswain) March 17, 2020
Clients are not being produced from custody. Witnesses are self isolating. Counsel are self isolating, meaning last minute returns. Chambers are asking people to avoid coming in.
Courts should be limited to essential hearings by video link.
1315 update: In a statement, the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said:
'It is not realistic to suppose that it will be business as usual in any jurisdiction, but it is of vital importance that the administration of justice does not grind to a halt.
'We continue to work closely with others in the justice system, including the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS, to work through the implications of the developing medical position for the operation of the courts.
'Given the rapidly evolving situation, there is an urgent need to increase the use of telephone and video technology immediately to hold remote hearings where possible. Emergency legislation is being drafted which is likely to contain clauses that expand the powers in criminal courts to use technology in a wider range of hearings. The Civil Procedure Rules and Family Procedure Rules provide for considerable flexibility.
'Our immediate aim is to maintain a service to the public, ensure as many hearings in all jurisdictions can proceed and continue to deal with all urgent matters.'
*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.
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