Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic every possible effort has been made to offer continued access to justice whilst ensuring the safety of judges, magistrates, staff, and those attending court and tribunal buildings. The collective efforts of all those involved have allowed us to deal with a greater proportion of our caseload than many similar jurisdictions elsewhere in the world.
During the pandemic, significant and urgent changes have been made to the way we work. These changes have included the separation of the estate into buildings which have been open, staffed and suspended, thus allowing for scarce resources to be focused on the most urgent work. The impact of the virus also meant that very quick steps were taken to improve our access to, and use of, technology.
Although we have seen a period characterised by tremendous and urgent challenges, the experience has been of value. We have learnt very quickly where technology can improve the experience, and where it is less effective. We have learnt much about the physical limitations of our courts and tribunals buildings and where we need to use our court estate more imaginatively.
While COVID-19 will remain with us for some time we are now at a point where the focus is shifting to recovery, applying what we have learned from what has been, in effect, the largest justice sector pilot ever conducted in this country. We have been working closely with HMCTS to that end and they have published a plan (external link, opens in a new tab) for how this will be progressed.
The plan sets out how HMCTS intends to move forward. Importantly, the Lord Chancellor has agreed that sitting days should be used to their maximum in this period and we should not hesitate in using fee-paid and deputy judges to fill any gaps which cannot be filled by the salaried judiciary. It is now all hands to the pump.
This recovery plan sets out details for reopening venues. You may have seen that the majority of courts and tribunal buildings are set to reopen by the end of June, with the remainder opening as soon as it is safe for them to do so in line with public health guidance; the safety of all court users remains a priority. Local leadership judges will also be looking to list creatively and to stagger and extend sitting times, with the potential to start hearings at different times of day and to sit at weekends.
We will see more audio and video hearings, including in new ad hoc court and tribunals venues, supported by more staff, equipped with new IT equipment which will allow them better to support the judiciary with remote hearings. The full functionality of the Cloud Video Platform (CVP) will be rolled-out across Criminal, Civil, Family and Tribunals.
As we move into this next phase, which will enable more cases to be heard, and heard safely, we are grateful for the continued efforts being made to administer justice and keep our justice system running.
The Lord Burnett of Maldon
Lord Chief Justice
Lord Justice Lindblom
Vice-President of Tribunals