UK Pushes Tech, Not Delays For Civil Cases Amid Pandemic

Law360, London (March 19, 2020, 4:21 PM GMT) -- New guidance issued Thursday instructs civil and family court judges to prepare for the inevitability that participants in the cases they're overseeing will need to attend hearings remotely amid the novel coronavirus outbreak — instead of defaulting to postponing proceedings.

In a message to judges, Ian Burnett, the lord chief justice of England and Wales, said that the courts are a “vital public service” and so the judiciary has an obligation to make sure they continue to operate, even while the coronavirus outbreak is now expected to “suppress the normal functioning of society for many months.”

He said all judges must recognize the need to use technology to hear cases. The senior judge also urged attorneys to work together to figure out how that will work in practice instead of immediately seeking adjournments, which will only lead to backlogs and delays on an “intolerable level.”

“The default position now in all jurisdictions must be that hearings should be conducted with one, more than one or all participants attending remotely,” Judge Burnett said. “Otherwise, there will be no hearing and access to justice will become a mirage.”

The guidance comes a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that schools in the U.K. will be closing after this week. The government has also called on residents to work from home and avoid socializing, as it implements a new “social distancing” policy that urges citizens not to visit bars, restaurants, cinemas or theaters, and to reduce nonessential travel.

The senior judge said that the latest announcements, coupled with the need for those over the age of 70 or with health problems — who are most at risk of catching the virus — to stay at home, will have an impact on the “willingness of people to attend courts and tribunals.”

“There will be bumps along the road as we all get used to new ways of working forced on us by the biggest public health emergency the world has faced for a century,” Judge Burnett said.

Court procedure rules already allow for procedural matters to be resolved on paper as well as the use of telephone and video link for witnesses that are based in different jurisdictions or are unable to come to court, according to Thursday’s announcement.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service is currently looking at ways the availability of technology can be expanded to more court participants. Meanwhile, designated civil and family judges are expected to prioritize their work and help court officers remove non-urgent work from the listings so that urgent matters, including applications for injunctions and committals, can still be heard quickly.

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

Buckland at the same time backed restrictions already announced by Judge Burnett, requiring that any Crown Court trials listed before the end of April that are expected to last more than three days will be adjourned. The industry has been told that while the criminal courts remain open, any changes to individual hearings will be communicated directly to those affected.

--Additional reporting by Joanne Faulkner. Editing by Tom Mudd.

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

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