To combat COVID-19 and prevent its spread, the UK government has advised citizens to exercise social distancing, minimise social interaction and contact and stay home wherever possible. These measures have impacted all areas of public life, even the legal litigation sector. Read on to explore the measures that have been taken to adapt civil and criminal litigation to these new challenges and the implications of the pandemic on court proceedings.
At the start of the pandemic, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) reiterated that they would ‘continue to administer justice’ to the best of their ability. However, COVID-19 has forced the United Kingdom’s justice system to adapt to the circumstances and design innovative solutions to social distancing measures. Courts have to continue to deliver justice without compromising the health and safety of judges, lawyers, accusers and the accused.
During the third national lockdown, the UK government classifies hearings as essential and therefore travel is permitted to courts and tribunals. However, by and large, legal proceedings are mainly carried out remotely through audio and video technologies. Complying with safety concerns, HMCTS decided to conduct video and telephone hearings wherever possible so that judges, lawyers, defendants, witnesses and victims do not need to appear in person. This was legislated through the government’s ‘Coronavirus Bill’ which promoted the greater use of audio and video links in courtrooms.
By adapting the litigation sector with the increased use of technologies aimed to ensure ‘as many hearings in all jurisdictions can proceed’ while adhering to health and safety precautions. This minimises delays and disruptions in court business during the pandemic, allowing justice to be effectively served.
In addition to this, Mr Justice Mostyn has requested that legal documents are no longer be submitted into court in person and are instead electronically filed to minimise the risk of transferring and contracting the infection by limiting social interaction and contact.
While these measures have precedent in courts, they have been avoided where possible as many lawyers had argued that video transmission in courts ‘undermines their ability to cross-examine witnesses and makes it harder for juries to reach a conclusion. The pandemic has unfortunately made this an unavoidable reality.
In their inaugural report ‘UK Litigation Review 2020’, lawyers at firm Shearman & Sterling praised the country’s quick transition to virtual hearings and electronic filing with minimal disruption to the litigation sector. They also noted that remote hearings allow for greater flexibility and can accommodate witnesses’ schedules.
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Amanda Pinto QC, Vice-Chair of the Bar Council, has confirmed that barristers who have chosen to self-isolate to protect themselves and others from the disease have been not been sanctioned in breach of the Bar Standards Board Handbook. In addition to this, the government is being pressed to support the barrister profession through financial aid and tax and rent breaks during the crisis period.
Legal professionals have also predicted that the pandemic will offer a greater number and diversity of cases for the litigation sector. As the pandemic has caused a large number of events to be cancelled and businesses to stop production and temporarily close, it has raised the question of contractual obligations which are predicted to be the focus of several litigation disputes in the future.
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