‘I like the idea of local justice’ - How coronavirus could change courts in the long-term

Court hearings are currently being held online under lockdown. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Court hearings are currently being held online under lockdown. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The coronavirus lockdown and social distancing rules have shaken up how justice is being dealt with across UK courts. SOPHIE WYLLIE reports on how virtual hearings could be here to stay and pop-up courts could appear in a public building near you.

Defence solicitor Simon Nicholls. Picture: Bob Hobbs

Defence solicitor Simon Nicholls. Picture: Bob Hobbs - Credit: Archant

With strict social distancing and coronavirus lockdown measures, court hearings, like most aspects of daily life, have moved online.

Jury trials at Norwich Crown Court are yet to resume but other hearings, which do not need a jury as well as magistrates’ cases in Norwich and Great Yarmouth, have continued with some or all parties taking part through video technology.

Norwich Crown Court. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

Norwich Crown Court. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood - Credit: Archant

But as the country gradually eases out of lockdown the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has started looking at public spaces, including civic centres or university moot courts, to host so-called Nightingale courts.

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Norwich Magistrates' court Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Norwich Magistrates' court Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN - Credit: Archant

These would allow traditional court buildings to manage more work while maintaining social distancing, according to an MoJ spokesman.


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Defence solicitor Simon Nicholls from Norwich-based Belmores Solicitors, who represents defendants in magistrates’ hearings, said: “I think the coronavirus pandemic will dramatically change how the court system works. I think it will cost defence solicitors’ jobs and more courts will close. I’m pessimistic there will be the need for as many buildings for hearings.

Swaffham mayor Jill Skinner with town clerk Richard Bishop. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Swaffham mayor Jill Skinner with town clerk Richard Bishop. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

“When the Covid-19 crisis ends I think we will see more people going back to court but more cases will be done remotely.

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“Norwich has been at the forefront for remote court hearings. Magistrates’ court hearings are being done remotely. They are working really well. The crown court is also working flat out. Judge Stephen Holt was quick to adapt to remote hearings.

Dereham mayor Linda Monument. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Dereham mayor Linda Monument. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

“The problem comes with trials. If you had a jury of 12 two metres apart you would need Carrow Road to hold them. The whole point of having a jury is for people to talk about their decision-making and they would be several feet apart.”

He added council chambers with their audio systems could be used but it would be a logistical issue to find a safe space for 12 jurors.

Norfolk County Council's County Hall headquarters in Norwich. Picture: Neil Perry

Norfolk County Council's County Hall headquarters in Norwich. Picture: Neil Perry - Credit: Archant

It is not yet known when jury trials will restart.

Mr Nicholls proposed some crown court hearings, which would normally require a jury, could be decided by a judge but he thought there would be resistance to that idea.

He added that in a perfect world he preferred meeting defendants face-to-face but it was not safe at the moment as coronavirus did not alienate anyone.

But he thought there were many benefits to holding virtual hearings, in which some defendants appear from a police investigation centre, police station or prison, because it made the system more efficient and reduced the impact on the environment by stopping legal representatives travelling between courts.

“It is an interesting time. I would not be surprised if solicitors are working 60pc of the time from home after the pandemic is over,” said Mr Nicholls.

Andrew Oliver, criminal law barrister from Norwich-based Octagon Legal, who works in the crown courts, has been working from home during lockdown as he was shielding for health reasons.

He believed the virtual system was working efficiently and reduced the risk of catching the virus.

He could not see jury trials restarting for a long time and added the crown court system would have to change to catch-up with the backlog of cases.

“It would take three courts for one trial case at the moment, which is impractical,” said Mr Oliver.

He was not aware of any university buildings in Norfolk being looked at for Nightingale courts but council buildings could be an option, although security could be an issue.

Paul Allen, who represents Norfolk magistrates, said: “The pop-up court system has been mooted for a while ever since the courts were closed in towns like Dereham and Swaffham several years ago.”

He believed they would be better for low-level cases.

Mr Allen added: “The virtual hearings have gone surprisingly well but there are cases where you need physical hearings. We want to get justice done as quickly as possible. There are lots of things to think about in terms of Nightingale courts. It might take longer than expected.”

Jill Skinner, Swaffham mayor and retired magistrate, described the idea of pop-up courts as “brilliant” and believed the town hall could be used.

“I like the idea of local justice,” she added.

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Dereham mayor Linda Monument said it was “jolly good idea” but it would have to be pursued carefully.

Pop-up courts would either host full hearings or allow victims or witnesses to attend remotely and would be used in cases, such as driving offences, that do not need a secure dock or cells.

The MoJ has set up a working group to develop the plan which includes judges, court service officials and senior lawyers.

For the latest COVID-19 news, visit the Norfolk Coronavirus Updates Facebook page.

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