Public access to courtrooms matters - justice has to be seen to be done
The impact on daily life of a non-functioning justice system ultimately affects everyone. We need to be sure that vulnerable court users are able not just to sit through a hearing but take part and understand what is happening, says Maria Eagle MP | Credit: PA Images
Keeping justice out in the open - which means letting the public see, hear and understand hearings - must remain a fundamental principle.
The Covid-19 crisis has severely affected every aspect of our lives.
The impact of many courts being unable to function and dispense justice may not have been the first concern of most people because there were so many other pressing concerns. However, the impact on daily life of a non-functioning justice system ultimately affects everyone.
Hard numbers don’t always mean much.
More than 480,000 court cases are outstanding in England and Wales, and it’s hard to imagine just what that means until you think about the people waiting for trials to begin.
Some are on remand in prisons many are victims of crime who need justice to be delivered to give them some peace of mind or closure.
Or the thousands of others involved in myriad legal processes we think about less.
Disputes over divorce or money or, heartbreakingly, children have had to be delayed putting even more strain on families in trouble. Wills can’t be signed. Probate can’t be granted. Planning decisions are held up, possibly affecting jobs and house-building. Employment tribunals go on hold.
That’s why the Justice Committee ran inquiries into how our courts have kept going during the coronavirus outbreak, and into how lawyers can continue to provide services when high street solicitors firms have been forced to work from home with a collapse in things like conveyancing, and when criminal legal aid barristers have seen their work, and their incomes, fall off a cliff because of closed courtrooms.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, told us that jury trials, which were completely halted for a time, were at one point accumulating at the rate of 1,000 a month.
That rate is getting lower, but the courts still can’t clear cases quickly enough to stop the backlog growing.
Crown Court jury trials have been dramatically changed by social distancing. The guidelines mean each trial requires three courtrooms – one for the judge, jury, advocates and defendant; one for the press and public; and one where the jury can reach a verdict in private.
The Government have raised the possibility of reducing the size of juries or letting judges and magistrates hear cases without them.
But the Committee welcomes the Government’s commitment to retaining trial by jury as a fundamental principle of our legal system.
We firmly argue in our Courts Report against the removal of jury trials.
Public access to courtrooms matters, too – justice has to be seen to be done.
Hearings have to be right for the people involved in them as well as the professionals who manage them.
The Courts and Tribunals Service deserves praise for keeping large parts of the system running and making sure journalists can access hearings electronically.
But we warn that keeping justice out in the open - which means letting the public see, hear and understand hearings - must remain a fundamental principle.
The system has in many ways responded impressively quickly to the crisis. Just one example is the instant roll-out of online justice, with judges taking hearings from their homes.
This demonstrates what can be done with the right technology and the will to use it.
Fewer than 1,000 cases were heard using audio or video technology in the last week of March, when the lockdown began; by mid-April it was more than 3,000 a week.
We warn again though, that hearings have to be right for the people involved in them as well as the professionals who manage them.
We need to be sure that vulnerable court users – individuals bringing cases, people with mental health problems or learning difficulties, for example – are able not just to sit through a hearing but take part and understand what is happening.
Getting good kit for judges and lawyers is vital; making sure the court users get a fair deal matters even more. We’re glad the Lord Chief Justice guaranteed to us that no-one will have to use technology to obtain justice.
The Justice Committee’s work doesn’t end with the reports we’ve published this week.
In the autumn, we’ll be looking at Court Capacity to start asking how that large and growing backlog can be handled, and how the lessons learnt from use of digital courtrooms can be best applied in the near future.
We’ll also be looking at the Legal Aid system from September onwards, as we continue to ask how justice can best be provided for all.
Maria Eagle MP is Labour MP for Garston and Halewood and a member of the Justice Committee.