The Law Society of England and Wales (Law Society) has warned some covid-19 restrictions may need to be retained in courts to allow them to run safely and efficiently, despite most remaining restrictions being set to be lifted on Monday (19 July).
Law Society president, I. Stephanie Boyce, said: “We are pleased to see that things are getting closer to normal with widespread vaccination allowing for restrictions imposed during the pandemic to be lifted.
“The removal of restrictions including social distancing should allow for the courts to run closer to capacity. However, given the backdrop of rising covid infection rates, many court users will have concerns about a return to ‘normal’.
She said a “wide spectrum” of views about ongoing risks need to be considered, in the context of some individuals being more vulnerable than others. “Jurors, witnesses and professional court users need to be reassured that they will remain safe”.
She also raised practical issues: “… if members of staff are required to self-isolate, or if a jury is lost mid-trial because of a covid contact – the removal of restrictions could become counterproductive to efforts to beat the backlogs. It is therefore likely to be important to retain some restrictions in courts, even if the government removes nationwide legal restrictions.
Boyce stressed the importance of keeping “channels of communication open” so court users’ concerns can be addressed and to “find that right balance between making appropriate use of the new flexibility and keeping people assured of their safety.”
In the week ending 23 May, there are more than 57,000 outstanding Crown Court cases and more than 450,000 in the magistrates’ courts.
Boyce commented: “With some trials being listed for 2023 it’s clear the pandemic has compounded decades of underfunding and cuts in the criminal courts.
“Even as we get closer to ‘normal’, there is a clear need for sustained long-term investment into our threadbare justice system to beat the backlogs and ensure timely access to justice for all”.
Referring to a speech given by the lord chief justice to HM Judges at Mansion House on 7 July, she said: “It is heartening to see the lord chief justice recognise this need for sustained funding.
“The removal of restrictions should help increase court capacity, but this is not the only major constraint on tackling the backlogs. There are also challenges in finding enough part-time judges, and enough litigators and advocates to handle the volume of cases in the system.”...