More courts and tribunal buildings are to reopen this week as the UK continues to emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown.
Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland praised the judiciary and court staff for ensuring that “justice has not stood still” in recent months, as he said that the latest move will give people confidence that justice can “continue to be done in a way that is safe”.
A total of 16 more buildings across England and Wales have now been assessed as suitable for socially-distanced hearings, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said.
This means that 184 court and tribunal buildings are now open for essential face-to-face hearings, it added.
In echoes of the ‘Nightingale’ hospitals set up to help treat Covid-19 patients, the MoJ said work has started to identify suitable public venues such as civic centres to act as ‘Nightingale’ courts, enabling more work to be carried out, such as full hearings, or allowing victims and witnesses to attend remotely, whilst maintaining social distancing.
Many hearings, where possible, both in the civil and criminal courts, have been conducted remotely since lockdown measures were imposed at the end of March.
Mr Buckland, who is also the Justice Secretary, said: “Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, court staff and the judiciary have worked tirelessly to make sure justice has not stood still and I’m pleased that we are now in a position to reopen more of our buildings.
“A functioning justice system is one of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy and today’s update will give confidence to people up and down the country that justice can continue to be done in a way that is safe for all court users.”
A remarkable volume of work has continued throughout the lockdown, much of it being conducted by judges from homeLord Chief Justice Lord Burnett
Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said the move is “a very welcome step towards reopening all our court buildings”.
“A remarkable volume of work has continued throughout the lockdown, much of it being conducted by judges from home,” he said.
“Reopening all of the court estate, using additional accommodation and continuing to use technology imaginatively will enable us to return to and surpass pre-lockdown volumes, helping manage the growing caseload.”
Sir Ernest Ryder, the senior president of tribunals, said the reopening of buildings will allow cases which are not best suited to remote hearings to go ahead.
In a further indication of the gradual return of courtroom hearings, a High Court judge last week ruled that the trial of a clinical negligence case involving a teenage girl should be conducted in court.
In his ruling, Mr Justice Johnson said there is “no legal prohibition on a hearing taking place in court”, and that it “is necessary to consider legality, safety and practicality”.
The senior judge said that the hearing “could be conducted remotely in a way that is fair”, but added “that does not mean that it should be conducted remotely”.
“There are many reasons why such a hearing, in this case, would be undesirable,” Mr Justice Johnson said.
He concluded: “Even though a hearing can fairly take place remotely, I do not consider that it should do so in this case unless a court hearing is simply not possible.”
Jury trials resumed last month, nearly two months after being put on hold due to coronavirus lockdown measures.
The first courts where juries were sworn in included the Old Bailey in London and Cardiff Crown Court, with special arrangements in place to maintain social distancing and other safety measures.
The court and tribunal buildings due to reopen this week are:
Romford Magistrates Court, London
Barnet Civil and Family Centre, London
Derby Combined Court, Midlands
Chesterfield Justice Centre (Chesterfield Court House), Midlands
Mansfield Magistrates and County Court, Midlands
Bolton Combined Court – Crown only, North West
Southend County Court, South East
Horsham Law Courts, South East
Canterbury Combined Court, South East
Aylesbury Crown Court, South East
Portsmouth Magistrates Court, South West
Salisbury Law Courts, South West
Swindon Magistrates Court, South West
Newport Crown Court, Wales
Merthyr Tydfil Combined Court, Wales
Llandudno Magistrates Court, Wales