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Law Column: Open Justice – the pandemic makes it mark


Covid-19, social distancing, self-isolating – these are words we have all quickly come to know, if not love.

But the government also wants life to carry on where possible, and when it comes to the judicial system and open justice, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has moved pretty quickly.

Last week, HMCTS made a number of announcements regarding the working of the legal system in this time of crisis. The most significant development came last Friday, when the government announced that most court and tribunal buildings will be closed for the duration of the crisis. The headline to the announcement said it all:

“A network of priority courts will remain open during the coronavirus pandemic to make sure the justice system continues to operate effectively.”

What this meant in practice was that just over half of the 371 Crown, magistrates’, and family courts across England and Wales are now closed to the public (and journalists), leaving a network of 157 “priority courts” remaining open for essential face-to-face hearings.  The priority courts cover most of geographic England and Wales, from Bodmin to Blackburn, Willesden to Wrexham.  There’s a helpful list of priority courts on the HMCTS website.

As to the closed courts, 124 of them (“staffed courts”) are conducting hearings remotely, and although they are closed to the public, they are open to staff and the judiciary. In the words of HMCTS, “these ‘staffed courts’ will support video and telephone hearings, progress cases without hearings and ensure continued access to justice”.

This is all well and good, but from a journalist’s perspective, none of this is particularly helpful if the principle of open justice becomes a casualty of the pandemic.

Fortunately, the authorities have recognised that as the eyes and ears of the public, it’s important that journalists have similar access to publicly held court cases as is usual in normal times.

Why so? Because first, HMCTS has confirmed that hearings which cannot be heard by video or telephone and which cannot be delayed, will be held in a priority court from the beginning of this week (though there is some wriggle room as this principle will not apply “in exceptional circumstances”).

Second, decisions have been delegated to local courts: “Decisions on individual hearings are a matter for the judiciary, who will have regard to open justice, the matters at stake in the hearing, and the needs of court users when determining whether to use audio or video technology.”

The effects of this policy can already be seen. Last week, it was reported that the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News had agreed with a judge at Norwich Crown Court that a reporter can cover cases remotely via Skype; PA has made arrangements for the continued coverage of civil cases at the Royal Courts of Justice; and journalists from the BBC, PA, and Evening Standard successfully persuaded the Old Bailey to allow reporters to dial in to hearings from home.

So in these are strange times, the moral of the story is for journalists to do what they have always done, and are uniquely well placed to do – use your contacts, and with a bit of luck, court reports will still be appearing in regional and local papers across the land!