Sixteen more courts and tribunal buildings opened in England and Wales this week. According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ)
, 184 court and tribunal buildings are now open, 54 per cent of the total of 351. The MoJ said that all the buildings in use have been assessed as suitable to hold socially distanced hearings.
Some practitioners have expressed doubts about safety in the courts. In her Monday message this week (8 June 2020)
, Caroline Goodwin QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), referred to ‘some appalling complaints’ about the lack of health and safety measures to deal with the threat of COVID-19 in the magistrates’ courts, where she believes ‘the vast majority of cases have been conducted’. She requested that CBA members ask for ‘copies of the risk assessments for each court centre’ when attending the magistrates’ courts.
In her message, Goodwin also made some hard-hitting comments on the backlog of cases in the courts, warning: ‘[W]e have a toxic scenario where the strain on the court system as we know it is going to literally cripple us and unless something is done it is only going to get worse.’ She predicted that the government’s drive to recruit 20,000 police officers by 2023
will lead to an estimated 66,000 more cases a year (a 16 per cent rise) and argued for greater investment in the justice system by the government.
Bill Waddington, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA), told Legal Action he believes that the backlog of Crown Court cases is increasing by around 1,000 per month. He argued that the government cannot blame it all on COVID-19 as the backlog ‘was massive before lockdown’. According to Waddington, there were around 37,000 outstanding cases in the Crown Court in March this year and the figure has now increased to just under 40,000. In the magistrates’ court, Waddington said, there are currently 391,615 cases outstanding, an increase of around 90,000 compared with the same period last year.
CLSA also shares the criminal bar’s concerns regarding safety in the courts. ‘It’s ironic that the court estate is opening up without any serious thought been given to the safety of people visiting them,’ said Waddington. CLSA has warned its members that staff at solicitor firms cannot be expected to work in an unsafe environment.
In the press release announcing this week’s court openings, the lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC, said court staff and the judiciary had ‘worked tirelessly to make sure justice has not stood still’ during the COVID-19 crisis and welcomed the reopening of more court and tribunal buildings as this ‘will give confidence to people up and down the country that justice can continue to be done in a way that is safe for all court users’.