The number of people in courts should be “kept to a minimum” amid a surge in coronavirus cases, according to the most senior judge in England and Wales.
Speaking on Tuesday after the third national lockdown for England was announced, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett said: “No participant in legal proceedings should be required by a judge or magistrate to attend court unless it is necessary in the interests of justice.”
It comes after the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said that courts and tribunals “continue to be an essential public service, served by essential workers and meeting Covid-secure standards endorsed by public health officials,” adding that “with the use of remote hearings wherever appropriate, this vital work can and should continue”.
In a statement, the Lord Chief Justice said courts “must continue to function” during the third lockdown and jurors, witnesses and legal professionals who are considered key workers can continue to attend in person where necessary.
But he added: “The significant increase in the incidence of Covid-19 coupled with the increase in rates of transmission makes it all the more important that footfall in our courts is kept to a minimum.
“No participant in legal proceedings should be required by a judge or magistrate to attend court unless it is necessary in the interests of justice.
“Facilitating remote attendance of all or some of those involved in hearings is the default position in all jurisdictions, whether backed by regulations or not.”
Precautionary measures as well as instructions on wearing masks and maintaining social distancing have already become commonplace in courts over the last few months, but the Lord Chief Justice said judges and magistrates “have a role in making sure this happens”.
The next few weeks will “present difficulties in all jurisdictions”, but staff and professionals will ensure the “administration of justice continues to function in the public interest”, he added.
The latest available figures suggest the backlog of cases waiting to be dealt with by courts stands at around half a million, with fears that any move to limit hearings further could see this number grow and delay justice for victims.
The news that courts will remain open amid the latest lockdown has also prompted safety fears for those still needing to attend in person.
Derek Sweeting QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said: “We are in a different position from last March and must keep the justice system functioning where it is possible to do so safely.
“We continue to press for the maximum use to be made of remote attendance and hearings on a consistent basis across England and Wales.
“It is our clear expectation that judges in all jurisdictions will move to the remote hearing of cases wherever possible and as soon as possible.”
The Courts and Tribunals Service had been “making the case” for court users to be vaccinated once priority groups had been given the jab, he said, adding: “Clearly, there will be a range of other critical workers pressing for early vaccination, but we will continue to push for as much as possible to be done to keep court users safe.”
David Greene, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said it was “vital” to keep the justice system operating “as far as safely possible” so the backlog can be tackled.
He also called for more Nightingale courts to be opened to increase capacity.
Mr Greene said it was “essential” the steps taken by the government so far to make courts safe “meet the added risk of the new variant and there is effective enforcement to ensure that individual courts are applying the measures effectively”, adding that risk assessments must be up-to-date and “readily available”.