Criminal practitioners were angry after being informed over the weekend that they must attend magistrates' courts in person rather than remotely from today.
The Judicial Office issued a statement on Saturday in response to concerns about remote working. It stated that coronavirus legislation permits the court to make a direction allowing a person to take part in a hearing remotely if the court is satisfied that it is in the ‘interests of justice’ in the particular case.
Referring to guidance issued on 14 April encouraging participation by video or audio links, the statement says: 'It is understood that over the subsequent weeks some latitude was given to appearing remotely by default.'
‘However, we are now not at the same crisis levels and therefore the law and Criminal Procedure Rules should be followed with the expectation that advocates will attend in person unless they have made an application to the court to attend remotely… If an advocate has a magistrates’ court hearing on Monday 22 June and has not applied formally to appear remotely they must either attend court or contact the court applying for leave to attend remotely.’
The statement prompted widespread outrage and concern. Kerry Hudson, a director at London firm Bullivant Law, said: ‘I’m now spending my Saturday writing to the courts in all my trial cases to confirm I’m not trial ready in any of them.’
Representative bodies including the Law Society and practitioner groups held an emergency meeting yesterday with the deputy senior presiding judge and chief magistrate.
The Judicial Office clarified its original statement, and said it was not intended that the prosecution and defence will now, without warning, be required to come to court when they had been expecting to appear remotely.
In a note to all district judges, the chief magistrate said: ‘You may or may not be aware that there is a bit of a Twitter storm about the court applying the “interests of justice” test when deciding whether parties can appear remotely. In some areas, the test has been applied throughout. In other areas, including in Westminster, the test has not been applied at all. By law, the judiciary should be applying the test in every case...
‘There is a great shortage of legal aid solicitors and if [allowing remote working] assists them to stay in business, it is in the interests of justice for that to happen. I am being told that defence firm financials are very fragile at the moment as result of zero Crown court income as well as a reduction in volumes in our courts. Many defence firms have furloughed solicitors and support staff. It will take time for them to manage their resources for attendance to become the norm again. This is aside from the understandable anxieties that there are in returning back to work generally and, specifically, back into courtrooms. I am sure we will remain sensitive to their challenges.'
The chief magistrate said it would be wrong to question anyone who said they were vulnerable or shielding.
Law Society president Simon Davis said: 'Solicitors can continue to appear remotely where it is in the interests of justice to do so... We have continued to raise the challenges and difficulties faced by criminal legal aid firms with the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary - challenges which have been accentuated by the coronavirus crisis and include firms not having the capacity to cover multiple hearings due to staff being furloughed. If a solicitor is shielding or caring at home for someone who is vulnerable they can continue to attend remotely.'
Meanwhile, jury trials will resume at five more Crown courts this week: Chelmsford, Croydon, Guildford, Hull and Mold.
*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.