Are the courts operating during lockdown?
Further to the Lord Chief Justice’s announcement on 23 March 2020 as to how the courts will operate during these times, HM Courts and Tribunal Service published a list of priority county court work on 31 March 2020 to ensure the courts continue to operate to provide justice whilst bearing in mind the public’s safety and to focus on those hearings which would cause harm if they were postponed.
Civil court hearings have been split into two groups: (a) work that must be done; and (b) work that could be done.
Of the 370 crown, magistrates, county and family courts across England and Wales there will be 157 priority court and tribunal buildings open for essential face-to-face hearings. By consolidating the work of the courts and tribunals to fewer buildings they will temporarily close some buildings and others will be staffed but not open to the public.
The courts and tribunals which are closed are looking to contact the parties of upcoming hearings to notify them of the closure and to confirm new hearing appointments. There will also be increased telephone and video conferencing hearings during the coronavirus outbreak.
The Lord Chief Justice has said “An extraordinary amount of hard work has gone into keeping our justice system functioning. Technology is being used creatively to ensure that many cases can continue. Not everything can be dealt with remotely and so we need to maintain functioning courts.”
This update is an acknowledgment that those cases deemed less important will have to be put aside for now. Cases which fall into the “could be done” will only be dealt with once the cases that “must be done” have been completed. These include matters regarding interim payments in personal injury cases, applications for summary judgment, to set aside a judgment in default and security of costs are not deemed a priority at this time.
In contrast, those case which must be done include committals, freezing orders, injunctions and homelessness applications and all multi-track hearings where the parties agree it is urgent.
The position regarding criminal courts have been discussed in detail since restrictions were imposed due to the COVID-19 outbreak however the situation for civil justice lawyers is less clear. The Civil Procedure Rule committee has already made some amendments to usual practice such as allowing the parties to litigation to agree extensions up to 56 days up from 28 days before requiring permission from the court. A new practice directions provides for this doubling of days. The practice direction states that the court will take into account the COVID-19 outbreak when considering applications for such extensions and this will remain in place until 30 October 2020.
The new practice direction states that the court will take into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic when considering applications for the extension. The revised deadline affects compliance with directions, the adjournment of hearings, and applications for relief from sanctions. It will remain in place until 30 October.
It is also interesting to note that the number of new claims in English courts dropped by 65% in the last month; it is expected that severe market stress has halted expensive litigation. It may be that an increased number of cases are presented to the court once restrictions are loosened however parties may also chose to arbitrate or mediate instead in order to save some costs given that the outbreak has undoubtedly affected business and personal accounts.
As such we are actively encouraging our clients to consider alternative dispute resolution or making attempts to negotiate terms or settle where they can, but we are continuing working on our court hearings , where possible, to bring matters to an effective conclusion