HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) have published guidance on court and tribunal services in England and Wales during the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The following points should be noted:
• During the Delay phase of the government's response to the COVID-19 outbreak courts and tribunals business will continue. Any changes to individual hearings will be communicated directly to those affected, typically by email or telephone.
• Court and tribunal users (including those attending for jury service) should continue to use courts and tribunals as normal, as long as they do not have confirmed or possible COVID-19 infection. Those users who do have confirmed or possible COVID-19 infection should contact the court or tribunal in which the hearing is due to take place.
• Judges can consider audio or video links for hearings in a number of circumstances during the COVID-19 outbreak, including in preliminary and enforcement hearings.
• HMCTS has recently revised its security policy to allow users to bring hand sanitiser (which is proven to security not to be harmful) into court and tribunal buildings. Users are encouraged to report concerns about hygiene to members of staff.
• The principles in the government's response will be applied to the work of courts and tribunals, and HMCTS will continue to follow this guidance in making decisions about keeping court and tribunal buildings open.
• HMCTS's priorities in managing its response to COVID-19 include maintaining access to justice, supporting decisions and directions made by the judiciary, delivering key services, protecting the public and maintaining confidence in the justice system, keeping disruption to a minimum.
• Current rules and practice on using video and audio technology in courts in the civil and family jurisdictions continue. Requirements relating to the recording of hearings remain unchanged.
• The decision as to how a hearing is conducted is a matter for the judge, who will determine how best to uphold the interests of justice, considering issues including: the nature of the matters at stake during the hearing; any issues that the use of technology may present for participants; and any issues around public access to or participation in the hearing.
• While HMCTS is seeking to make the best possible use of existing technology in the courts, it is rapidly expanding its capability. In the civil courts, this includes increasing the number of licences and the provision of staff training for HMCTS's audio conferencing system. HMCTS expect to have complete coverage across the court estate, in all jurisdictions, by the end of the week commencing 23 March 2020. HMCTS has also activated Skype for Business on all staff and judicial laptops, and is carrying out training and testing with a view using the technology at scale as soon as possible. The guidance states that legal professionals who wish to join hearings remotely "may want to install Skype and test it on their own systems if they do not already have it".
• Judges will continue to have regard to open justice. Public galleries in court rooms will remain open to public access.
If you have any queries as to how your hearing may be effected, please contact the fee earner with conduct of your matter.