On 31 March 2020, Chief Justice Clarke announced further measures to maintain the provision of justice, while adhering to physical distancing guidelines.
As we outlined in our previous article here, the Courts Service has already introduced innovative solutions to continue business throughout the courts system, while minimising the need for parties to attend court during these times. These measures include accepting consent adjournment applications by email, delivering judgments to the relevant parties via email and attempting to deal with administrative and case management matters electronically as much as possible.
While urgent cases, such as family and childcare matters, will continue to be heard with practical measures put in place to comply with physical distancing guidance, the Chief Justice acknowledged that the provision of justice for other matters cannot be neglected, and cases can only be adjourned for so long before a backlog will begin to develop.
Trial of Remote Hearings
The Courts Service will begin to test remote hearing facilities with the aim of ensuring business continuity and the provision of justice will continue. If the facilities prove successful, it is hoped that courts will test pilot remote hearings, provided they are done in a manner which ensures fair procedures for all relevant parties and the current restrictions are adhered to. The Chief Justice has stated that the pilot remote trial facilities may be in place for the start of the of the new legal term on 20 April 2020. While these are without a doubt welcome developments, it is not clear how the remote trials will be run, what sort of technology would be necessary for the parties to use and whether they will be limited to certain matters and not others, for example jury trials. However, there are many suitable video screening platforms available which can easily accommodate all those involved in a trial wherever they may be based. In England at least one trial in their Commercial Court has been conducted remotely, where a screen was used in the courtroom to stream the hearing to the parties in order to ensure that the public had access.
Justice Must Be Administered in Public
Another potential issue that must be considered is the constitutional right for justice to be administered in public. The Chief Justice has recognized the importance of this and has stated that “bona fide” members of the press will be permitted to be present in court. In the English case a publicly accessible internet livestream of a trial was made available to comply with the necessity for justice administration to be in public. This may be preferable solution to having members of the press physically attend court.
We will continue to monitor and report on developments as they unfold.
If you have any specific queries in relation to the COVID-19 virus, please get in touch with your regular William Fry contact. We also have a specific COVID-19 Hub on our website to assist you and keep you informed of developments.
Contributed by Sarah Plunkett