The COVID 19 crisis has called for a change in the way businesses operate and the legal sector has had to undergo many changes to adapt to the current situation. After the initial emergency response to the pandemic in March/April HMCTS has moved into phase 3 which focuses on recovering operations. In an, “all hands to the pump,” response Lord Chancellor Buckland has outlined plans are underway for recovery. Despite the move towards resuscitation the measures outlined have raised many questions and stirred controversy amongst those in the legal sector.
Included within the recovery plan are a range of measures to be used across various jurisdictions to ease damage caused by the pandemic. There is a focus on the need for continued social distancing and so some hearings will still be held virtually but with an increase in the backlog of cases there is a need to reopen all tribunals that have been closed off. With plans to reopen all sites by July HMCTS has proposed using alternative sites nicknamed, “Blackstone courts,” in an effort to catch up with cases that have been backlogged. Sites up for consideration include council-run facilities and conference areas with existing sites set to undergo intense screening measures to ensure physical modifications are in place to protect staff and clients. Lord Chancellor Buckland has also said, “a renewal for justice,” for courts can only be achieved with a move towards better technology systems. HMCTS has outlined this move in their recovery plan with an increased focus on having courts increase the use of audio and video technology to tailor to new types of hearings.
Where the controversy lies, however, is in, “all hands to the pump,” recovery measures that include additional court hours for staff and proposals to remove juries from either-way trials. Lawyers are under intense pressure and regular working hours already fall into weekends and extended hours. Some have pointed to the recovery plan as being sparse in detail and not taking into consideration the burden it will cause to staff and parties involved in cases. Simon Davis, President of the Law Society, has been critical of the move to increase hours and commented, “ extended working hours for already beleaguered judges, practitioners and court staff needs to be treated with utmost caution.”  Davis has recommended a reconsideration of the move suggesting that focus should first be on ensuring normal court hours are being maximised and that there are no restrictions on judges sitting. HMCTS has already come under scrutiny following its proposal to replace removed juries with a single judge and two magistrates. There are reports circulating that the proposal could be dropped after the opposition it has faced from those in the legal profession.
In response to the backlash Lord Chancellor Buckland has declared that the crisis, “demands a new perspective on the way we deliver justice.” It’s clear the justice system needs to evolve to meet the current demands of the pandemic but are some measures too unpalatable for the legal profession to accept?
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