English Courts Stay Open Despite Coronavirus Restrictions

Law360, London (March 17, 2020, 12:13 PM GMT) -- The U.K. has decided to keep the courts in England and Wales operating but restricted new jury trials amid Prime Minister Boris Johnson's policy encouraging "social distancing" to drive down the infection rate of COVID-19 across the country.

Although Justice Minister Chris Philp announced on Twitter late Monday that the courts would operate normally and told people to show up for jury summons, by late Tuesday the lord chief justice of England and Wales, Ian Burnett, had called for restrictions on new jury trials.

Only jury trials expected to take three days or less can start in the crown courts; any longer criminal trials that had been slated to begin before the end of April will be postponed, the lord chief justice said. Current trials should continue in the hopes of being wrapped up.

"It is not realistic to suppose that it will be business as usual in any jurisdiction, but it is of vital importance that the administration of justice does not grind to a halt," Justice Burnett said earlier on Tuesday.

The judge said earlier there is an "urgent need" to increase the use of telephone and video technology to hold hearings remotely, and said that emergency legislation that is being drafted should boost the ability of the criminal courts to use that technology in a wider range of hearings.

The changes came after Johnson held a press conference on Monday afternoon, calling on residents to work from home and avoid socializing, especially in London.

The government's social distancing policy has urged citizens not to visit bars, restaurants, cinemas or theaters, and to reduce non-essential travel.

HM Courts and Tribunals Services department, an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice, has meanwhile published guidance for all users of the courts and tribunals in the U.K., which will be updated regularly as new advice on tackling the coronavirus outbreak is given from the government and Public Health England.

The guidance says that while the business of the courts remains open, any changes to individual hearings will be communicated directly to those affected.

The Serious Fraud Office, for example, confirmed that starting Wednesday the trial of former Unaoil executives Ziad Akle, Stephen Whiteley and ex-SBM Offshore employee Paul Bond on bribery charges will be postponed until March 31. The trial began in January and the defense was due to finish their evidence on Tuesday, before both sides began their closing submissions.

HMCTS said that the courts and tribunals will remain open and that professionals, witnesses, jurors and defendants are free to enter the buildings unless they have symptoms of the virus and need to follow the government's guidance on self-isolation. The guidance sets out the court's hygiene policies and confirmed that its security policy has changed to allow people to bring in hand sanitizer.

Judges can also consider audio or video links during hearings in which a defendant does not need to attend in person.

"We have strong business continuity plans to ensure we can respond to and continue our work in extraordinary circumstances, including public health outbreaks," the guidance said. "This includes a flexible system — and a flexible workforce — designed to ensure that access to justice can be maintained throughout the most challenging of times."

Courts across Europe have taken different approaches, with the majority restricting public access. Ireland has limited the courts to hearing only urgent cases and cases that do not involve witnesses in the next few weeks. It will also be allowing far fewer people in its courtrooms for those cases that will have hearings. Courts in Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands have all closed except for dealing with urgent matters.

The Greek judiciary has suspended most trials through March 27 and suspended deadlines for a variety of filing deadlines. The Czech Supreme Court meanwhile has urged anyone attending its proceedings to notify the court beforehand, because they will need to have their temperature taken and could be refused entry if they have a fever. Visitors will also have to answer questions about whether they have been in high risk areas or exposed to anyone affected.

Update: This story has been updated with comments from the lord chief justice.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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