Events have continued to move at great speed. I indicated during the course of last week that we would keep them under review. As the Prime Minister has been telling the country, the spread of COVID- 19 has continued to accelerate. The clear message from Government is to take all precautions to avoid unnecessary contact. A review of the arrangements in our courts is called for. This short statement comes to judges, and others, to provide some clarity for the coming few days.
We have put in place arrangements to use telephone, video and other technology to continue as many hearings as possible remotely. We will make best possible use of the equipment currently available; HMCTS is working round the clock to update and add to that. Some hearings, the most obvious being jury trials, cannot be conducted remotely.
I have decided that we need to pause jury trials for a short time to enable appropriate precautions to be put in place.
1. My unequivocal position is that no jury trials or other physical hearings can take place unless it is safe for them to do so. A particular concern is to ensure social distancing in court and in the court building.
2. This morning no new trials are to start. Jurors summoned for this week are being contacted to ask them to remain at home, and contact the court they are due to attend. They will only be asked to come in for trials where specific arrangements to ensure safety have been put in place. In some cases, this may mean that jurors may be called in to start a new trial later on Monday. All hearings in the Crown Court that can lawfully take place remotely should do so and other hearings not involving a jury should continue if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure distancing.
3. Efforts to bring existing jury trials to a conclusion should continue. Social distancing in accordance with PHE guidelines must be in place at all times and at all places within the court building. Considerable imagination and flexibility may be needed to achieve that. This is already happening in some Crown Courts. HMCTS will continue to work to ensure that safety measures are in place in all parts of the court building in which trials are already taking place. The basic hygiene arrangements urged upon us by the Prime Minister must be available. Resident Judges, with HMCTS staff, will determine whether a trial can safely be continued.
4. If it is necessary to adjourn trials already underway for a short period to put those safety measures in place, this must be done.
5. The same considerations apply to Magistrates’ Courts. Magistrates’ Courts will need to continue to deal with urgent work, in accordance with guidance given by the Judiciary to judges and staff. They are the first court to which all criminal cases are referred. All hearings that can lawfully take place remotely should do so if the facilities exist.
Civil and Family Courts
6. Guidance has already been given about the use of remote hearings. Hearings requiring the physical presence of parties and their representatives and others should only take place if a remote hearing is not possible and if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure safety.
This guidance will be updated, as events develop.
The Lord Burnett of Maldon
Lord Chief Justice