The emergency measures put in place to reduce the backlogging of court cases suggest that the government was wrong to close so many courts, MPs have said in a report on the impact of COVID-19. The Commons’ Justice Select Committee has encouraged the establishment of 10 Nightingale courts. ‘The dramatic reduction in the size of the courts estate in England and Wales over the past ten years looks increasingly difficult to justify… Nightingale courts are described as temporary but HMCTS should explain the long-term role of supplementary venues and should also set out how Covid-19 will change the long-term approach to the estates reform programme,’ the report says.
The committee has also announced that an inquiry will take place into how the delays in the court system can be addressed. This will look at the practical experiences of lawyers, witnesses, and defendants. The deadline for this submission is early September. On the future of jury trials, the committee has welcomed the government’s developing policy. Concerns have been raised about the absence of data on how many cases are in progress and when trials are due. This makes it more difficult for HMCTS to evaluate the effect of the pandemic on court users.
Going forward, more data must be gathered on the effect of digital technology on lay users and professionals during the pandemic. This is important for understanding their perception of fairness and barriers in access to justice. Since March, there has been a rise in telephone and video hearings as a result of coronavirus but some trials particularly jury trials cannot be conducted remotely.