As the Coronavirus epidemic widens and government restrictions tighten, the UK court system has been forced to make changes, despite its best efforts to continue to operate as normal.
What has happened so far?
Just days ago, court users were being advised to attend as required but to follow government advice on self-isolation, if they were suffering any symptoms of the coronavirus. However, soon more and more cases faced difficulties due to unavailable witnesses and lawyers.
Changes to the system began with the adjournment for 14 days of cases where Defendants had contacted the court or their legal representatives, informing them that they could not attend due to self-isolation. As government measures tightened day by day, this became increasingly common.
Under usual circumstances, medical evidence would need to be provided in order for a case to be adjourned for this reason. However, the benefit of the doubt was given as those self-isolating were being advised at the time not to go to their doctor to obtain the evidence required.
On 17 March, the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC announced all Crown Court trials due to last longer than three days were to be postponed. All trials of less than three days could proceed as planned as with all other Crown Court hearings as long as government advice on self-isolation was being adhered to.
Where are we now?
Following complaints about a lack of care and consideration being shown to those using, working and attending the courts, announcements made on 23 March took measures further, putting a halt on Crown Court trials.
There has been discussion around only proceeding with urgent cases, although a clear definition of urgent is yet to be outlined. Similarly, the decision on which cases are to proceed has been left in the hands of local judges around the country.
The future of court
There is no doubt that the pause will create a backlog in the system once business is back up and running, which is expected to cause issues and frustrations for Defendants, legal representatives, judges, witnesses and juries alike. In an attempt to minimise the impact of this, courts have placed more reliance on remote methods of conducting hearings, such as through telephone, video and online communication.
Whilst emergency legislation is currently being drafted to enable as many hearings as possible to be conducted in this way, it is unclear how this will be widely implemented.
This comes at a time when the Court of Protection has held its first skype trial. The judge, lawyers, witnesses, experts and journalists participated in the trial online and this also allowed the hearing to be noted as a matter of record. The decision as to whether each individual hearing can be held in this way will be left for the judges, magistrates or panels to decide, however, the courts are being encouraged to use technology wherever possible.
This raises some interesting questions on the future of how courts will operate after the current pandemic and whether any of the new measures and methods will influence future proceedings, particularly video hearings. We have already seen courts take steps to go digital but this crisis will no doubt open further opportunities for digitisation.
Please note, all advice and opinion offered in this article are subject to change in line with the latest government advice.