Society calls for open justice during Covid-19 crisis

Posted on: March 23, 2020 by Claire Meadows

Adjustments made to court hearings in England and Wales in light of the coronavirus crisis must ensure that open justice is enabled, the Society of Editors has warned.

Responding to the announcement this morning (Monday 23 March) that new jury trials in England and Wales will be paused while appropriate precautions are put in place in light of the spread of covid-19, Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors has said that while the safety of all involved in the court process is paramount, justice must continue to be seen to be done and journalists must continue to have safe access to proceedings.

He said: “The Society welcomes the decision by the Lord Chief Justice to halt jury trials while safety precautions are put in place for all those attending courts. Ultimately, the safety of all individuals involved in the court process should be of paramount importance during this time.

Where possible, the media should be enabled to listen remotely and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) should continue to extend the use of telephone, video and other technology to maintain access, added Murray.

“Open justice remains one of the fundamentals of our society and, at a time of national crisis, this has never been more important. HMCTS is working around the clock to ensure that where hearings can take place remotely this can be enabled and we will be seeking assurances from them that, where possible, facilities will be put in place to ensure that open justice is maintained and that journalists can take part remotely and, where this is not possible, access is maintained with suitable safety precautions in place,” said Murray.

In a statement issued by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, this morning he said that no jury trials or other physical hearings can take place unless it is safe for them to do so in line with social distancing guidelines.  

 Arrangements should be put in place to use telephone, video and other technology to continue as many hearings as possible remotely the Lord Chief Justice said and HMCTS will continue to work around round the clock to facilitate this. Some hearings, the most obvious being jury trials, cannot be conducted remotely, he added.

The Society has worked closely with HMCTS over the past year to promote court reporting and has held several regional roadshows to discuss the practical aspects of open justice with court officials and the media. Last month the Society held a launch event at the Old Bailey alongside HMCTS and the News Media Association to publish updated media guidance for court officials.

All hearings in the Crown Court that can lawfully take place remotely should continue and other hearings not involving a jury should continue if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure social distancing, the Lord Chief Justice added. 

He said: “I have decided that we need to pause jury trials for a short time to enable appropriate precautions to be put in place.

“This morning no new trials are to start. Jurors summoned for this week are being contacted to ask them to remain at home and contact the court they are due to attend. They will only be asked to come in for trials where specific arrangements to ensure safety have been put in place. In some cases, this may mean that jurors may be called in to start a new trial later on Monday.”

It was reported last week that HMCTS had published guidance on phone and video court hearings in response to the coronavirus threat. Alongside expanding capacity and helping judges and staff to use the technology, it was hoped that the public and press would be enabled to take part in civil hearings remotely. 

Efforts to bring existing jury trials to a conclusion should continue the Lord Chief Justice has said but social distancing in accordance with Public Health England guidelines must be in place at all times and at all places within the court building.

Magistrates courts have also been advised that they “will need to continue to deal with urgent work, in accordance with guidance given by the Judiciary to judges and staff. All hearings that can lawfully take place remotely should do so if the facilities exist.” Hearings in the civil and family court requiring the physical presence of parties and their representatives and others should only take place if a remote hearing is not possible and if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure safety.

The statement from the Lord Chief Justice can be read in full here.