Maintaining access to justice in challenging times is, in some senses, more important than when all other things are equal.
However, there is clearly a difficult balance to be struck between the need to avoid the wheels of justice grinding to a halt and the imperative to prioritise the health of court staff and users amidst the Coronavirus pandemic.
So what can court users expect?
COVID-19 symptoms and court attendance
A problem that many individuals may face is a requirement to attend court, perhaps compulsorily (eg. by summons). Failure to do so may constitute an offence. The usual principle is that, if you cannot attend, you need to provide medical evidence to the court. However, with COVID-19, that is unlikely to be available given current policy on seeking medical advice only if complexities arise.
If you are due to attend court in whatever capacity but need to self-isolate according to NHS advice (because you have confirmed or possible Coronavirus or because a member of your household is showing symptoms), the starting point is to continue to self-isolate but to contact the court to explain the position.
At the moment, if you do not have a need to self-isolate according to NHS advice, you should attend court as planned.
That position may well change, however, as government advice hardens as the situation with COVID-19 escalates because, let’s face it, the court environment usually provides limited opportunity for social distancing. Other measures are coming into effect depending on the types of case and, as matters progress, we can expect to see further steps being taken.
Civil and family cases
In civil and family cases, the procedure rules already allow some flexibility to allow, for example, hearings to take place by telephone, for witnesses to give evidence by video link or for the attendance of parties to be excused. It is likely to be the case that use of these measures will be extended during the pandemic in order to better protect court staff, parties, their representatives and judges from the health risks.
With the likelihood of depleted levels of court staff, there may also be a need to prioritise certain case types over others. You may, therefore, find that some court hearings are adjourned by the court, possibly at short notice, for several months.
Even if there is no immediate need to attend court, there is still an impact on litigation. Many cases may be in their initial stages, and delays in the court process due to the impact of COVID-19 are likely to have a significant impact. Even if cases have been timetabled through to a final hearing by the court, it may be that the parties will find it hard to comply with directions due to sickness or otherwise. How those situations are managed will vary from case to case, but, for example, courts have already shown some willingness to allow parties more latitude than the rules generally permit to agree changes to court deadlines themselves.
Criminal trials in England and Wales involve a vast number of people, which increases the prospect of derailment if even one or two people fall ill. For that reason, trials in the diary for March or April that have not yet started but which are scheduled to last more than three days are to be adjourned. The position will no doubt be kept under review.
In criminal cases, the use of video and audio link is more limited than in other types of case. That is to be addressed in the emergency Coronavirus Bill, which was published this week. That aims to allow Magistrates’ Court hearings to take place by phone or video in a variety of circumstances, to enable justice to be administered even where individuals may be subject to quarantine requirements.
Similarly, it may be that the attendance of certain people can be excused from particular hearings.
Although the matters highlighted above are current at the time of publication, the measures are likely to evolve as quickly as the pandemic. If you have queries about your particular case, please call 01202 786340, or alternatively email firstname.lastname@example.org