Lord Chancellor Insists English Courts Must Go On Sitting

Law360, London (March 18, 2020, 6:11 PM GMT) -- Law courts across England and Wales have a critical role to play and must go on sitting during the coronavirus pandemic, the government's secretary of state for justice said Wednesday.

The Ministry of Justice has come under pressure from the legal community to suspend trials following the latest government guidance to the public, but Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland said that courts must stay open even with a reduced capacity.

“The rule of law is vital to a functioning democracy and even at times like these, it is essential that our independent courts are able to administer justice,” Buckland said.  

Buckland at the same time backed restrictions announced by the lord chief justice of England and Wales, Ian Burnett, on Tuesday that no new Crown Court trials can take place if they are expected to last more than three days. All cases estimated to last longer than three days listed before the end of April will be adjourned.

For trials already underway, they should all proceed as planned with all participants expected to attend court and discharge their duties, Buckland said.

“Our Crown and magistrates courts provide a vital public service and until instructed otherwise, we expect all lawyers, magistrates, jurors, witnesses, defendants and court staff to continue to attend court as required, so the interests of justice can be served,” Buckland added.

Shorter court hearings, such as preparatory hearings, are to be conducted with some or all of the participants attending by telephone, video link or online, to allow as many as possible to take place, Buckland said.

“These changes will be temporary and we estimate that three-quarters of crown court trials will be able to continue despite this restriction,” he said.

While 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. 

Wednesday's update came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on residents to work from home and avoid socializing, especially in London. The government's social distancing policy also has urged citizens not to visit bars, restaurants, cinemas or theaters, and to reduce nonessential travel.

The Bar Council representing barristers has called for a halt to jury trials across the court system to follow that advice. 

“Barristers up and down the country are telling us that jurors are having to drop out of cases because they are self-isolating or, worse, coming to court when they should not, and thereby putting everyone’s health at risk,” said Amanda Pinto QC, the Bar Council's chairman, said in a statement. “Being in a jury trial should not be a game of Russian roulette with the participants’ health.”

Barristers, witnesses, defendants, jurors or members of the public, court staff and judges should not be expected to attend court while the rest of the country is very strongly urged to work from home and to avoid nonessential contact, Pinto said.

--Additional reporting by Paige Long. Editing by John Campbell.

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

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