For an already under-pressure Court system, the Covid-19 outbreak has almost proven to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
During the first lockdown, Courts shut completely and only re-opened at the end of May 2020. That two-month shutdown caused hearings planned for the summer of 2020 to be rescheduled into 2022, and caused an unprecedented level of chaos within the British judicial system.
For a year where we had an unprecedented use of the word unprecedented to describe most of the occurrences of 2020, it seems almost fitting that the word can also be applied to the UK Courts and ongoing court matters.
By the time jury trials recommenced in May 2020, the backlog and level of disruption had reached never before seen levels within the British legal system. Already stretched paper thin due to austerity cuts within the legal system, it appeared for a time as though the entire weight of the UK Courts may buckle under the added workload and strain.
As well as the rescheduling of cases that couldn’t be heard during the lockdown period, Courts were asked to reschedule any longer/non-essential trials planned for the summer of 2020 to allow for hearing of offences committed during the lockdown period to be heard and dealt with swiftly. This means that some Courts now have backlogs well into 2022, with no sign as yet of Government assistance to clear them.
There was much talk during that first lockdown of the creation of Nightingale Courts, yet those never materialised and so Court hearings must still be heard within the same court buildings as before, placing an added Covid-preparedness strain on judicial building staff as well as impacting the number of attendees due to the need for social distancing measures.
With this new lockdown now upon us, at least this time we’re told courts will remain operational for jury trials — however, you have to ask if cases continue to rise across the nation, are we going to be placing members of the public at risk by continuing jury trials across England and Wales right now?
With another order to commence working from home upon us, is it time for all hearings to now be managed remotely and via video links? We’re all now overly familiar with Zoom, MS Teams, WhatsApp video calls….one of the advantages of this era of modern technology is that we’re actually spoilt for choice on a software/connection front.
Could Courts manage to move to entirely online/remote business as indeed our schools and universities scramble to do the same? If they can do it, why not us?
In truth, it seems unlikely that the UK Court system would ever be able to move to completely remote hearings or trials. Some cases are just too large, and too complex, to be able to be comprehensively managed remotely. It’s far more likely that testimonies/statements from those in high-risk categories will continue to be heard remotely, to lessen both their risk and the number of people attending court in any given day, for example.
During the first lockdown, at the Government’s direction, over £110million was spent on Covid-preparedness in the Courts across the UK. The Government guidance relating to the coronavirus pandemic and the continuation of business in the high court and crown court makes for interesting reading, as it’s quite clear they realised early on in the covid-19 pandemic that the justice system would never actually be able to operate fully via just virtual hearings, and so a lot of time and though has clearly been invested in the operation of face-to-face business.
The future stability and smooth running of the courts is by no means certain. If there are public disorder outbreaks, some of which have already been happening, then there will be a round of prosecutions and hearings to follow which could potentially beget further delays in the court system.
There’s been a recent spate of mass ‘anti-mask’ and ‘anti-lockdown’ protests, which, if the trend continues, could spread across the country due to growing unrest at the new lockdown orders. It’s nearly impossible to predict though, and so it’s by no means certain that we’re facing a ‘winter of unrest’ that could create even more strain on our courts: we simply now have to wait and see.
It’s to be hoped that, in the face of rapidly mounting daily cases and the buckling of the NHS under the strain of new daily admissions, the English public do in fact see the sense in the stay at home directions and that this lockdown passes peacefully.
We can’t entirely predict this though, so, like all things, we simply have to take matters one day at a time right now. Gaining control of this pandemic is now the most important thing we can do, and if the vaccines can be rolled out in a timely fashion then it seems like we might be on track to get the whole country, not just the courts, back on target and back to normal.