A network of priority courts will remain open during the coronavirus pandemic to make sure the justice system continues to operate effectively, it has been announced.
Media and members of the public will be able to attend priority court hearings in person in an effort to ensure the principle of open justice is maintained but this will only be allowed if safe to do so in line with Public Health England guidance it has been confirmed. Where this is not possible, judicial consideration will be given to journalists joining a hearing remotely or a transcript provided afterwards.
The announcement comes after the Old Bailey yesterday allowed journalists to cover criminal cases from home in what is believed to be a legal first.
The temporary changes, designed in partnership between Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service and the judiciary, will help maintain a core justice system focused on the most essential cases.
The Lord Chief Justice said: “An extraordinary amount of hard work has gone into keeping our justice system functioning. Technology is being used creatively to ensure that many cases can continue. Not everything can be dealt with remotely and so we need to maintain functioning courts.
“These temporary adjustments to how we use the court estate will help ensure that we can continue to deal with work appropriately in all jurisdictions whilst safeguarding the well-being of all those who work in and visit the courts.
There will be 157 priority court and tribunal buildings open for essential face-to-face hearings. This represents 42% of the 370 crown, magistrates, county and family courts and tribunals across England and Wales.
They will also ensure effective social distancing for all court users and for cleaning and security work to be focused on fewer buildings.
In addition, a further 124 court and tribunal buildings will remain closed to the public but open to HM Courts and Tribunal (HMCTS) staff, the judiciary and those from other agencies.
Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland said: “We are facing an unprecedented challenge and the government’s absolute priority is to save lives and protect the NHS.
“With each part of our justice system – from police to probation – dependent on one another, it is vital that we keep our courts running.
“This will only be done while ensuring the safety of the public, judges, legal professionals, staff and all those attending hearings and I’d like to thank everyone for their extraordinary efforts so far.”
These ‘staffed courts’ will support video and telephone hearings, progress cases without hearings and ensure continued access to justice.
All remaining courts and tribunals will close temporarily.
These measures, which will come into effect on Monday, 30 March 2020, will be kept in place for as long as necessary to comply with government and public health advice and will be reviewed regularly.