This report examines the impact of Covid-19 on the courts and tribunals in England and Wales. The courts and tribunals in England and Wales have continued to function throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland QC, told us that this “singled out this jurisdiction in the world as a jurisdiction where justice could continue to operate”.
There has been a significant rise in the number of outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court. The numbers themselves are alarming but what matters is the rate at which the outstanding cases can be cleared. The Government, the judiciary and HMCTS are working closely on a multi-pronged recovery plan that involves setting up temporary courts, extending court hours, exploring options for changing arrangements for jury trials and maximising the use of technology.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, and government ministers have all acknowledged that a further increase in sitting days could go some way to alleviate the situation. Chris Philp, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, told us that an increase in sitting days was being discussed.
The courts have rapidly adopted remote hearings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Judiciary and lawyers have largely been positive about the move to using video and audio channels. However, there is emerging evidence that remote hearings are less satisfactory for some lay participants (that is the parties - whether legally represented or acting as litigants in person, and witnesses) and vulnerable court users. Remote jury trials have not taken place in England and Wales.
Many of the measures taken to respond to Covid-19 represent an acceleration of the ongoing court reform programme which began in 2016. Any steps taken to increase the capacity of the courts to hear cases more effectively is to be welcomed. However, at present it is unclear to what extent the measures taken to respond to Covid-19 will become permanent and how they fit within the overall reform programme.
There have been a number of rapid reviews of the impact of remote hearings. However, there is considerable concern over the quality of data being gathered by HMCTS. It is vital that as the operation of courts and tribunals change so rapidly, every effort be made to ensure effective public debate over the impact on access to justice.
Published: 30 July 2020