HomeInsightsHM Courts and Tribunals Service publishes guidance on its priorities during the pandemic

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HMCTS says that it has strong business continuity plans to ensure it can respond to and continue its work in extraordinary circumstances. This includes a flexible system and a flexible workforce designed to ensure that access to justice can be maintained throughout the most challenging of times.

In managing its response to coronavirus, HMCTS is seeking to:

  • minimise the impact of the outbreak on HMCTS staff, the judiciary and court and tribunal users;
  • ensure sites remain open for business wherever possible and identifying alternative arrangements to maintain essential services; and
  • minimise disruption for non-essential services that cannot proceed as normal.

In a statement on 17 March 2020, the Lord Chief Justice, The Lord Burnett of Maldon, said:

“COVID-19 will clearly have an impact on the operation of all courts in every jurisdiction. It is not realistic to suppose that it will be business as usual in any jurisdiction, but it is of vital importance that the administration of justice does not grind to a halt. Our immediate aim is to maintain a service to the public, ensure as many hearings in all jurisdictions can proceed and continue to deal with all urgent matters.”

HMCTS says that cases relating to urgent and vitally important issues, such as the deprivation of liberty, public safety, and individuals’ rights and welfare, will always be prioritised.

In the criminal courts, examples of priority hearings include all matters relating to custody, detention and bail, and urgent applications for matters such as terrorism, domestic violence or search warrants.

Certain civil proceedings in the magistrates’ courts are also regarded as urgent, including applications relating to public health legislation. All courts will have regard to sensitive cases involving children, vulnerable victims or witnesses, or youths, and it is important to progress preliminary hearings and Plea and Trial Preparation Hearings (PTPHs).

In the civil and family jurisdictions, urgent work will include applications to suspend warrants of possession, injunctions and orders dealing with issues of care, abduction, emergency protection and debt, as well as breaches of injunctions and Court of Protection matters relating to vulnerable people.

There will also be urgent hearings in the Immigration and Asylum Chamber and Mental Health tribunals, which deal with matters relating to liberty, including immigration bail and the status of detained and restricted patients. Appeals relating to asylum or social security matters often involve people who are vulnerable or facing exceptional hardship.

HMCTS says that this information is not exhaustive, and managers working closely with, and where relevant at the direction of, the local judiciary, will continue to ensure that hearings are dealt with appropriately.

Any changes to individual hearings will be communicated directly to those affected in the usual way, usually by email and/or phone.

The Judiciary will determine whether a hearing needs to proceed, and if so whether it would be appropriate to use audio or video technology, or whether alternatives are appropriate such as adjournments or consideration of procedural matters on the papers.

HMCTS says that it will keep lists updated and parties notified, should there be a change in the listing of a hearing. To read the HMCTS guidance in full, click here.