Charmaine Watkins (Student)
As a result of Covid-19, courts were forced to change the way that they operate. Many hearings have had to move online but there are still major backlogs; the disruption caused by Covid-19 may have had a long term effect on the way that the courts work.
HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) have put forward a proposal to ensure that the backlog of cases is dealt with as quickly and as smoothly as possible. However, this has been criticised, with Lord Chief Justice urging HMCTS to be realistic about the funding.
In October 2020, the number of hearings, judges sitting, and disposals were close to pre-Covid-19 levels, however the pandemic has created more cases, particularly relating to employment and housing repossession. In September 2020, there were over 45 000 outstanding cases in the employment tribunal alone, this was expected to increase when the Furlough Scheme ends. HMCTS have warned that ‘there is already a significant volume of cases waiting to be listed, so our focus now is on ensuring we process the current caseload as quickly as possible so we can manage the anticipated increase in demand effectively’. To tackle the backlog, hundreds of new staff have been recruited, judicial sitting times have been maximised, courts that have closed due to the pandemic have reopened and an introduction of ‘Nightingale Courts’ has been planned. The cost of the recovery plan is problematic, with many professionals being left to ask, ‘Where is the money coming from?’. The Lord Chief Justice said, whilst giving evidence to the Commons Justice Committee last week, it is ‘absolutely vital’ that courts operate at full pelt [in 2021].
The new Nightingale Courts will be temporary courts created in large buildings to allow more cases to be heard by judges in a large safe space. The Government had been told that a minimum of 60 extra court rooms would be needed for Criminal hearings alone, however since this only 10 new court rooms, in 5 Nightingale Courts have been created. James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association has said ‘It needs to be repeated that buildings outside the court estate with large rooms must be found and opened,’ There has been no indication as of yet about how many Nightingale Courts will be created.
David Greene, President of the Law Society has said that HMCTS needs to make maximum use of normal court hours and the existing estate before starting to introduce more drastic measures. Lord Barnett of Maldon said ‘My view for next year in all jurisdictions is that rather than the traditional approach to funding… there has to be a realistic assessment in every jurisdiction of the likely expectation of work coming into the system and in addition, there has to be a clear understanding of the additional backlogs we have to clear.’
HMCTS faces the undesirable task of clearing the backlog as effectively as possible, however, will nevertheless come under scrutiny about the courtrooms and other public buildings being unclean due to the large number of people visiting during this time. The courts will be looking at ways to ensure that the backlog is dealt with, with the safety of all at the forefront of their minds.
At Staffordshire University Legal Advice Clinic (SULAC) we offer free legal advice on civil related matters. If you wish to book an appointment with us call 01782 294 800 or alternatively email SULAC@staffs.ac.uk