The first day of a block listing pilot to help magistrates’ courts hear more cases safely during the Covid-19 pandemic went well, the managing partner of the first law firm participant has said.
Firms involved in the pilot will have their cases heard in one go, minimising the number of people in court. Testing began last Friday, when the Kent branch of Tuckers had 13 cases heard at Medway Magistrates’ Court.
One courtroom was dedicated to hearing the firm’s cases. One defence advocate and a prosecutor attended in person, another defence advocate appeared remotely. One of the clients appeared remotely using the Cloud Video Platform, another appeared via videolink.
Managing partner Richard Atkinson told the Gazette that the firm gave HMCTS a long list of cases that the firm anticipated would be ready. When the list was confirmed, the firm then spoke to clients and got papers in advance from the Crown Prosecution Service.
Atkinson said cases were dealt with on time and efficiently and that court footfall fell.
The Kent branch, where over half of the solicitors have been furloughed, was also able to manage its resources effectively. Atkinson said: ‘Crown court cases are where you generate the income firms need to break even and survive. With Crown courts dealing with hardly any trials, that income has stopped. To mitigate that and reduced workloads, most firms have furloughed a large number of solicitors.’
With more magistrates’ courts starting to reopen, Atkinson said more advocates would need to be deployed to cover cases. However, firms do not have any Crown court income to support three advocates. Moving cases to a specific day in a specific court means lawyers can, for instance, go to court one day and be on police station duty another day.
Atkinson said: ‘You cannot support the full complement of staff unless you have got that Crown court income. If you have two magistrates’ courts hearings and not much else, you are not going to generate the income to support the salary.’
During the pandemic magistrates’ courts have continued to cover urgent work, such as cases where the defendant is being held in custody or domestic violence protection orders. In the latest operational update, HMCTS said it is planning to start dealing with other cases this month where the defendant is on bail.