The coronavirus outbreak has had wide-reaching consequences for everyone in society, including our courts and tribunals. Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service, explains how those working within the system have had to act and adapt quickly in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment to keep the wheels of justice turning.
After an unprecedented period that tested the essential working of our justice system, we are now firmly focused on recovering our operations from the effects of the pandemic.
It has been a monumental effort by all working in our courts and tribunals to maintain a functioning justice system throughout the last three months. But we do not underestimate the challenges that are still to come both to get our courts and tribunals back to working at pre-crisis activity levels – and to deal with the outstanding cases that have built up.
To do so will require all of us involved to show the same determination, flexibility and creativity that have characterised our immediate response to the crisis, and to work together with a shared interest in the justice system’s essential place as a key pillar of our democratic way of life.
The last two months have brought about widespread, fast-paced and complex change at a scale we’ve never seen before. Audio and video technology, which has long played a part in running our courts and tribunals, has provided particular support during the coronavirus outbreak. We’ve increased the capacity of our existing systems, and introduced new capabilities, while alongside this, reorganising the use of our estate, temporarily closing around half of our sites. By having fewer physical hearings in fewer courts, our cleaning and security staff were able to focus their efforts more effectively in supporting enhanced cleanliness and hygiene measures. At the same time, court users have been able to observe strict social distancing rules in all our open buildings.
These measures allowed us to prioritise the most urgent cases to keep people safe, protect the vulnerable, safeguard children and ensure that other critical decisions that affect the lives of so many could be made.
We’re now undertaking activity to rapidly recover, and this has been demonstrated over the past few weeks by the reopening of many of our buildings, following individual and rigorous assessment to make sure that they adhere to public health guidance.
There are now 287 of our buildings open for essential in-person hearings, representing 84% of the 341 crown, magistrates, county and family courts and tribunals across the country. We’ll continue to open our sites as they are assessed as being safe to do so, and plan to open all remaining sites throughout July, alongside installing physical modifications where necessary to maintain a safe environment in our open buildings.
But as has been said by others, the whole country now needs to prepare for an extended period of living with and managing the threat from the virus, so our wider operational plans will allow us respond to an evolving situation, focusing on two key areas: delivering justice in new ways, and increasing capacity so we can do more.
The tactical solutions underpinning these principles must be flexible so that we can always respond to the latest public health advice. While social distancing remains in place, the operational plan is very much shaped by that requirement and is iterative in nature.
Building capacity to deliver justice in new ways
Work has begun to identify suitable venues to outside of our own estate to boost capacity. These satellite venues would use public spaces, such as civic centres or university moot courts, to allow traditional court buildings to manage more work while maintaining social distancing – whether that be by hosting full hearings or allowing victims and witnesses to attend remotely. A working group has been established to develop these plans, made up of HMCTS officials, the judiciary, legal professional bodies, representatives of victims’ groups and other court users.
Additionally, early work is underway with justice partners to understand how else we might best design other arrangements to maximise our capacity, like exploring options for staggering and extending sitting hours where this can be done.
Our online services, mostly established under our reform programme, have been sustained throughout the recent period and we’ll continue to accelerate and expand their effective use across all jurisdictions to maximise their impact. This will include new hardware to improve the quality of video hearings and over the summer, we’ll be completing the rollout of Cloud Video Platform (CVP) into all Crown and Magistrates’ courts, as well as civil and family jurisdictions. The introduction of the HMCTS video hearings service, part of our reform programme, into tax and property tribunal chambers, will extend our capacity in this area.
In May, following the work of a judge-led working group and an announcement by the Lord Chief Justice, we restarted jury trials in a number of particular buildings, and did so as one of the first among other comparable jurisdictions globally. Like all of our reopened buildings, these sites, which included the Old Bailey and Cardiff Crown Court, were carefully selected following assessment that it was safe to do so, involving Public Health England and Public Health Wales.
More are following as we’re able to be satisfied that it is safe and practical to introduce more sites, and all jury trials will take place under special arrangements to maintain the safety of all participants. These include social distancing in court rooms, managing the way that people move around the building, and limiting the number of items that might otherwise be touched by multiple people.
The steps I’ve outlined represent some of the key cornerstones of our continued recovery, but we’re deliberately designing it in such a way as to provide us with a flexible framework to allow us to do as much work as possible despite the constraints we continue to work within. As we move forward, we’ll keep learning from the experiences of recent months and adjust our plans for HMCTS in the future accordingly, to build an improved resilience against any future impacts.
This recovery work, and ongoing evaluation of what has worked and what has not, will ultimately help to inform a refreshed operating model in a way that keeps us in tune with the shifting global landscape, and keep us true to the values of reform.
Getting it right will mean a system that not only emerges intact from this crisis, but is fundamentally more efficient, more dynamic and more resilient – a smarter system for a different future.
HMCTS recently published an overview of its response to COVID-19. More information on jurisdictional plans will be published over the coming weeks.