When courts close more fully, consequences will reach every corner of societyby Jake Richards / March 18, 2020 / Leave a comment
This week, as pubs, restaurants and theatres closed across the country after the prime minister announced new precautions in an attempt to delay the spread of Covid-19, 114 barristers, dressed in wigs and gowns, were paraded through parliament celebrating their appointment as Queen’s Counsel. The ceremony is the culmination of decades of hard work to reach the pinnacle of the legal profession. A global pandemic was unlikely to get in their way.
On the same evening, the new Justice Minister, Chris Philp MP, tweeted: “To confirm that courts will be operating normally tomorrow. Of course people who need to self-isolate as per the medical advice should do so. But for those not in isolation, Justice will continue and Jurors should attend Court tomorrow as per their Summons.”
It would not have required a lengthy cross-examination from a newly-appointed silk to reveal the absurdity of the government position. And sure enough, the very next day, jury trials of longer than three days in England and Wales were suspended.
For the courts and the administration of justice generally, the outbreak of coronavirus has already had a devastating effect. Even before the change in policy, courts were already vacating hearings. Judges were beginning to self-isolate. The contradiction of the government advice warning against gatherings, but expecting jurors, judges, clerks, counsel, solicitors, clients, security personnel, police, lay clients, and administrative staff to turn up, often in cramped, unsuitable court rooms, was obvious.
Now, at least, the government has recognised that it cannot be “business as usual” for the courts. It will get worse. Across Europe, governments have shut down their court systems altogether. The European Court of Human Rights has cancelled all hearings in March and April, apart from those where a suspension would cause “irreparable damage.” The Italian and Irish courts have been closed, under government decrees. The European Court of Justice is suspended for the next two weeks at least. The full closure of the courts is inevitable.
In France, the courts are closed for all but “essential litigation.” A similar pronouncement will surely follow in the UK, but the value judgment as to what amounts to “essential” is not easy. Many immediately consider the effect on…