By Megan Morrison
These unprecedented times have presented many changes to our work, social lives, and ability to travel. Although unplanned, the lockdown gave us more moments with our families, more time to enjoy nature, and a sense of camaraderie as people went to their front doors to clap for the NHS. For the general public, the lockdown may have postponed our plans, but we know it has been for our benefit. The same cannot be wholly said for those in prison awaiting trial in the Crown Court, whose fundamental liberties are postponed.
HMCTS may have increased the number of telephone and remote hearings, but social distancing measures presented a problem for jury trials. As such, on 17th March 2020, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Burnett, announced that ‘no new trials should start in the Crown Court unless it is expected to last for three days or less.’ This new measure was to protect the health and safety of jurors and court staff – and it cannot be suggested that this was an unreasonable consideration. However, justice delayed is justice denied and preventing access to timely outcomes threatens the credibility of the system. Not only are those who are innocent until proven guilty having to wait longer for their time in court, but this reduction in jury trials has resulted in a backlog of cases.
As lockdown measures start to ease, one can assume that more jury trials will go ahead. Yet, as admitted by HMCTS, ‘more radical action will be needed to get back to pre-COVID-19 capacity and start reducing the number of outstanding cases.’ It is unclear what form this ‘radical action’ will take, but it needs to prevent further interference with justice and maintain the safety of court staff and legal counsel.
A recent proposal to extend court hours has sparked controversy throughout the legal profession. Although this could help to reduce backlog, the impact on court staff and legal counsel is unfair and problematic. In particular, this will impact the diversity of the legal profession, preventing those with caring and familial responsibilities from getting home at a reasonable hour. It is not only those with parental responsibilities that will be forced to re-evaluate their already vulnerable work-life balance. Extended hours mean later trains and less time to prepare for cases, affecting not only the mental health of advocates but also their morale.
It is clear that jury trials needed to be suspended to protect the health of all involved but, with the increase in remote hearings, it is difficult to see why jury trials could not have been adapted to meet this challenging time. For example, plastic screens between jurors and social distancing where possible. Alas, it may be too late, and HMCTS’ main focus should turn to reduce the backlog. Although radical action is needed, it must be reconsidered whether extending court hours is the correct approach.
Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on the courts and the legal profession as a whole is imperative for upcoming interviews. It is almost guaranteed that a question will be asked about the impact of the lockdown on the legal sector. This article provides you with initial guidance for your interview research as it identifies some of the key issues lockdown has caused; namely, the suspension of jury trials, the backlog of cases, and the added pressure on court staff and counsel to ‘get back to normal’.