Thursday 19 March 2020 3:52 pm

Courts scramble to move online as coronavirus hits trials

Courts in England and Wales have begun a painstaking move away from physical appearances towards online and telephone hearings as the coronavirus epidemic intensifies.

Today, the head of the judiciary, the Lord Chief Justice said: “The default position now in all jurisdictions must be that hearings should be conducted with one, more than one or all participants attending remotely.”

At the start of the week the Ministry of Justice was insisting on a business as usual approach in the courts.

Read more: Coronavirus: Jury trials ‘Russian roulette’ says QC chief as she calls for their suspension

However, pressure from barristers and professional bodies and the realities of cases being postponed or cancelled has seen that position shift.

In a message today to the civil and family courts, Lord Burnett of Maldon, the Lord Chief Justice, said: “We all need to recognise that we will be using technology to conduct business which even a month ago would have been unthinkable.

“Final hearings and hearings with contested evidence very shortly will inevitably be conducted using technology.

“Otherwise, there will be no hearings and access to justice will become a mirage.”

The chair of the Bar, Amanda Pinto QC, said she welcomed the new policy.

“Everyone will be safer and work can continue to be done in the interests of justice and the public,” she said.

Late on Tuesday, the Lord Chief Justice announced that all new jury trials longer than three days would be suspended. Ongoing trials will continue.

Read more: Crown court trials to be suspended after lawyers push back on health fears

Today in the trial of three teenagers accused of murdering PC Andrew Harper, two jurors were discharged because they were self-isolating, the BBC reported, underlining the difficulties the system faces.

The Secret Barrister, an anonymous advocate who has written a best-selling book on the court system, today told City A.M. that the approach of the MOJ was “astonishing”.

“By introducing an arbitrary rule that Crown Court trials of three days or less must run, the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice are ensuring the highest possible turnover of people through the courts – witnesses, jurors, defendants, staff and lawyers,” he said.

“Add in the fact that the courts are filthy, dilapidated and lack basic hygiene facilities – such as soap and hot water – and it amounts to an astonishing approach.”