Lockdown number three seems to be tougher. I don’t know why. It is not as strict at the first and this time we have at least been through it before, unlike the utter shock of March 2020. Yet it seems harder.
Perhaps it's the fact that we're a year on – the cumulative impact of the past 12 months. Perhaps we are tired of it all – of the isolation, of enforced home working and of endless Zoom/Teams meetings. Perhaps many of us have had enough of juggling home schooling and work commitments. Perhaps it is just that we never, in our wildest nightmares, thought that we would be in another lockdown a year later. Perhaps it is all of the above. Certainly, this time round it seems each of us knows more people who have caught the virus. That brings it a little closer to home and makes it a bit more real.
The other difference is that courts and police stations have continued to function. Trial capacity in the Crown Court is still woefully low, but there has been no complete shutdown as there was last year. Magistrates’ court trials are going ahead, some with defendants (and occasionally lawyers) attending by way of video link using the Cloud Video Platform (CVP). Sometimes, though, the technology has not been there, or the courts have scandalously demanded personal attendance even when alternatives were available.
This has left lawyers and law firms with difficult dilemmas. It is a cliché to say that health and safety is paramount, but the plain fact is that in the crazy new normal, any journey, any interaction with others, constitutes risk. Most lawyers have an innate sense of responsibility towards their clients. Frankly, one of the biggest difficulties that I have had during lockdown has been dissuading colleagues from attending courts and police stations in person and encouraging them to think of their own health and consider alternatives.
We now know that 599 court users and staff — including 69 judges – tested positive for the virus in the seven weeks to mid-January 2021.1Emily Dugan and Tom Calver, ‘Covid strikes down 69 judges amid chaos in courts and jails’, Sunday Times, 16 January 2021.
COVID-19 cases were detected at 196 courts in the same period. Unforgivably, infected prisoners have appeared at court before their test results were in, putting lawyers and court staff at risk. One of my own colleagues contracted the virus from a client whom she was representing in court.
The mentality that it is business as usual is absurd – this situation is anything but usual. Anyone who has been in court in the past few weeks will talk about the absolute chaos that the system is in. I am conscious about taking this stand too far. We are rightly classified as key workers and we cannot abrogate our responsibilities in the criminal justice system. There are, however, many others in society who are doing so much more than us – not just NHS staff, but shop workers, shelf stackers and delivery drivers. No one claps for the latter groups; there are few articles in the national press and no parliamentary select committees examining their plight.
But it is in no one’s interest that the chaos in the courts continues and the backlog increases. The courts need not only to implement better working practices, but, more critically, to consider whether a case really needs to go ahead or the client needs to attend. The idea that cases should proceed no matter what must be replaced with a more flexible, understanding approach.
The CVP system needs proper investment, so that clients attending trials remotely can properly hear and see witnesses in their own cases. Too often, that does not happen and clients do not feel that they are effectively participating in their own trials. We need to address these issues or we are not only endangering the health of all court users, but the very idea of justice that the courts are meant to administer.