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Courts to remain open but virtual hearings considered default option

8th January 2021

Following the re-imposition of a national lockdown on Monday, the government confirmed that the fulfilment of legal obligations, such as attending court, was included in the list of reasonable excuses for leaving the house. The government also confirmed that court buildings would remain open, a change from the March lockdown when over half of all court buildings were closed.

Chris Philp MP also confirmed that jury trials can continue to take place, either remotely or in person. Professional court users have also been included in the list of key workers and so are permitted to place their children in school.

To reassure both professional court users and members of the public that court buildings were Covid secure, Philp stressed that the government had spent £110 million over the last few months to make courts safe.

The leaders of the Bar Council released a joint statement saying that lawyers should continue to attend court in person unless they are instructed not to do so by the presiding judge.

They went to say, however, that it is our clear expectation that judges in all jurisdictions will move to the remote hearing of cases wherever possible and as soon as possible.

This sentiment was reaffirmed by the Lord Chief Justice on Tuesday who stated that virtual hearings should be the default position during this period of restrictions.

Lord Burnett of Maldon said: The position remains that attendance in person where necessary is permitted under the proposed new regulations. This would include jurors, witnesses, and other professionals, who count as key workers.

No participant in legal proceedings should be required by a judge or magistrate to attend court unless it is necessary in the interests of justice. Facilitating remote attendance of all or some of those involved in hearings is the default position in all jurisdictions, whether backed by regulations or not, he continued.

Despite these efforts to keep courts functioning, this new round of restrictions is likely to cause delays in cases being heard and will contribute to the growing backlog of cases.

In December, The Private Law Advisory Group released a report detailing the extent to this backlog and estimated that it might be another three years before the private law backlog in the family courts return to pre-Covid-19 levels.

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