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Civil Litigation Trials: Coming to a Sports Hall Near You?

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A recent announcement in the House of Commons may lead to venues such as sports halls and hotel conference rooms being used as temporary court rooms should there be a backlog of claims and cases following the COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown. In England and Wales there are already over 1,400 cases waiting for dates at both the Crown court and magistrates court, a number that increases to grow week by week.


Presenting a range of solutions to Parliament designed to address any backlog, Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon said that subject to the appropriate social distancing requirements being in place and ‘with a bit of luck’, all courts should be in a position to re-open by the end of June. However, with current courts likely to struggle with demand, he suggested that temporary venues could be used in the short term, primarily for civil, family and tribunal proceedings.

Juries and Judge-led trials

The lord chief justice confirmed that preliminary discussions have taken place for a ‘menu and list of options’ for how to ensure that trials can go ahead within government guidance on social distancing. These options include reducing juries to seven members and having judge-led trials; although he said that this would be a last resort. In speaking to the House of Commons committee, Lord Burnett said:

If we don’t think about it now and only start thinking about it months ahead when things have got no better, we will be building up a backlog of cases which will take a very long time to clear…(alternative accommodation) is being looked at and might provide an opportunity for courts to be freed up to be used for the cases that really can’t be dealt with anywhere else.”

Lord Burnett added: Committee members asked questions on a range of issues, including arrangements for vulnerable court users if the courts service adopts more remote hearings after the crisis eases. Lord Burnett said it will remain a ‘fundamental starting point’ that nobody should be forced to use digital courts if they do not have the capacity. When asked to comment on the wider courts modernisation programme, Lord Burnett admitted to ‘nervousness’ which would be shared by anybody responsible for an organisation that relies on public funding at this time. He added:

Administration of justice has been something of a Cinderella over the last decades. Its funding has never been lavish, its funding has never been protected because it is a subpart of the Ministry of Justice whose funding was not protected.”

 

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