Criminal justice

Restrictions may need to remain for courts to run safely and efficiently

Most of the remaining coronavirus restrictions in England are set to be lifted on Monday (19 July) but some may need to be retained to allow courts to run safely and efficiently, the Law Society has warned.

“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,” said Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce.

“The removal of restrictions including social distancing should allow for the courts to run closer to capacity.

“However, given the backdrop of rising COVID-19 infection rates, many court users will have concerns about a return to ‘normal’.

“A wide spectrum of views about the ongoing COVID-19 risks need to be considered, with some people more vulnerable than others. Jurors, witnesses and professional court users need to be reassured that they will remain safe.

“There are also practical issues – if members of staff are required to self-isolate, or if a jury is lost mid-trial because of a COVID-19 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.

“It will also be important to keep channels of communication open to ensure we can address court users’ legitimate concerns and find that right balance between making appropriate use of the new flexibility and keeping people assured of their safety.”

There are more than 57,000 outstanding Crown Court cases and more than 450,000 in the magistrates’ courts.*

“With some trials being listed for 2023 it’s clear the pandemic has compounded decades of underfunding and cuts in the criminal courts,” added I. Stephanie Boyce.

“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.

“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.”

Notes for editors

* Figures for week ending 23 May – 453,482 outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts and 57,503 outstanding Crown Court cases.

** Speech by the lord chief justice to HM Judges at Mansion House.

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