Covid-19 and the Criminal Justice System
By Stuart, Jul 1 2020 11:46AM
The dreadful impact of the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 has reached deep into the ordinary life of the country, not least in relation to the conduct of proceedings in the Courts and police stations.
At the police station there have been some notable changes in response to the pandemic – some of the custody areas have actually been cleaned, for one thing. Social distancing is in force, albeit in some areas more than others. Other measures include screens (in some places), the issue of personal protective equipment (in some places), the use of remote attendance and video appearances by solicitors (in some places) – in other words, the response to the problem is marked by a lack of consistency in approach.
The Crown Courts have been either closed completely or operating remotely. At time of writing jury trials are slowly re-starting, again with social distancing being a key factor, but not in all Courts and not at the same time.
The Magistrates’ Courts have been, well, inconsistent. Cases involving appearances on bail or in answer to postal requisitions have largely been adjourned but some cases have gone ahead, primarily those which involve “priority” matters (such as custody cases or those involving domestic violence allegations). Cases which may only require a single hearing, such as a sending to the Crown Court, are clearly being preferred. Account freezing orders, for example, are being granted but applications to have them set aside are having to wait.
Lawyers have been attending remotely - except for those who have attended in person. Hearings being conducted remotely are frequently interrupted by automated announcements that a particular individual has hung up or been put through to the Court. The inability to speak directly to prosecutors or clients is causing considerable delay – that is a problem inherent to the system which was of course designed to reduce delay. A statement relating to remote working from the Judicial Office on Friday 19th June 2020 had to be “clarified” on 21st June 2020.
As the lock-down is eased, things may return to “normal” (for better or worse) but there will be a back-log of cases to be added to the back-log of cases which already existed prior to the lock-down. Various ideas have been mooted as ways to tackle this, including in the Crown Court suggestions ranging from Judge-only trials or trial by a Judge and 2 Magistrates to a reduction in the size of the jury from 12 to 7.
Nothing has been decided. However this is in many ways no reason for complaint – “quick fixes” rarely fix anything and decisions borne of difficult circumstances frequently lead to a worse situation. Hard cases make bad laws, after all. Could it be that the principal lesson from 2020 is the need in a civilised society for a properly-funded criminal justice system in which everyone can have confidence? This correspondent is not holding his breath on that one.
By Stuart McDonald