Many people who are currently requiring assistance from the Courts are finding themselves in an uncertain position when it comes to issuing claims or managing active claims awaiting hearings or decisions. Whilst the rest of the UK has been relatively swift to respond and have made radical changes to the way we work, by comparison, the Court system has been slow to react.
However, there is now some guidance in place. The High Court and Court of Appeal are now only covering urgent work, although there is little guidance as to what is considered to be urgent. A new Practice Direction 51Y has been introduced to the Civil Procedure Rules. This allows for private hearings to be conducted remotely (whether by video or audio) during the coronavirus pandemic. The Coronavirus Act also provides for greater use of video/audio hearings. Additionally, Practice Direction 51Z addresses extensions of time and allows parties to agree an extension of up to 56 days without notifying the Court (rather than the usual 28 days).
Whilst the Royal Courts of Justice remain open, they are manned by a skeleton staff of senior administrators with QB Masters working remotely from home. Consequently, electronic filings have not been kept up to date. Guidance has been issued by HMCTS advising that Skype for business had been installed on all staff and judicial laptops and it was anticipated that hearings should take place via Skype where possible.
The latest message from the Lord Chief Justice indicates that the Courts will, wherever possible, look to adapt to provide telephone and video hearings, but that “it may be difficult to maintain trials and final hearings in the short term, not least because of the inability of people to participate at all.” The prevailing view is that, in practice, many large trials (particularly where there is contested evidence) may need to be adjourned.
With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, this disruption will likely remain ongoing for some time to come, with the backlog likely to continue for many more months. Many parties already engaged in the Court process or parties with litigation about to start will not be content simply to wait for normal service to resume, and may be considering whether there is any other route by which they might pursue justice in a timely manner.