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The South Eastern Circuit
Leader's Update
Crown Court Trials:
You will all have your own views on the announcement made by the Prime Minister last Sunday night.  For better or for worse, we are in an era where our policy makers are having to make things up as they go along and the rest of us trail along trying to make the system work.  
 
The 
LCJ announced on Monday that some trials would restart next week.
 
This has of course stimulated a vast amount of interest.  Where?  How many? Will it be safe?  The Bar Leadership are not health and safety specialists.  But what we can do on your behalf is keep asking questions, until they are answered.  In the South East at least, the first two courts are the CCC and Reading.  I hope others will follow very soon.  How will trials be selected?  The PQBD has issued 
listing guidance here for Presiding and Resident Judges, which may answer your questions.
 
Safety first:

The general approach can be found here.  Many of you have written asking to know what checks have actually been done.  We press for the fullest transparency.  Of course HMCTS and the CPS as employers owe their employees duties of care to provide a safe workplace.  So even if you have not yet seen a checklist, you may think it hard to imagine that anyone is going to sign off a court centre as safe without having gone through rigorous checks that fulfil all their legal responsibilities.
 
During this week I have visited both the Old Bailey and Reading Crown Court.  The two part-heard trials resumed this week at the Bailey, hearing speeches and evidence.  Some of the defendants in the murder trial have agreed to observing proceedings over PVL.  One new trial is due to start at the Bailey next week.  Reading is unlikely to start any trial until after the bank holiday.  These are small, but important steps as we explore what it is possible to do under current PHE/ HMG guidance.  
 
At both courts, HMCTS have carried out a huge amount of work over several weeks to ensure that the use of all areas of the building will comply with current Government guidance.  HMCTS is one of those agencies that it is very easy to criticise.  After a decade and more of shrinking budgets, crumbling court estate and reductions in staff numbers to below the bare minimum, those who are left shoulder an unenviable burden.  And so we owe thanks to the remaining court staff who have worked relentlessly through the last few weeks to try to keep the system open and are now trying to restart trials.  It is not their fault that they are dealing with an unfit estate.
 
I gather the work in the Courts has been overseen by Public Health England.  The Judges are fully aware of the need to build confidence for all court users, witnesses, potential jurors and  advocates amongst others, that appropriate cleaning has been, and will continue to be done.  In Cardiff, for example, I know that all those likely to be involved in the first trials have had an opportunity to see what changes had been made.  The same will be true of Reading next week.  To give you a flavour of what has been done, entrances and exits have been reconfigured to create one way systems, and there is signage and markers everywhere to help maintain social distance.  Furniture has been rearranged in court rooms and the sight lines checked.  There are one way systems everywhere and plenty of space in the jury assembly area.  Witness facilities and cells have been assessed and every effort made to reduce risk.  I am not trying to cover everything here, but I can assure you that impressive efforts have been made to cover every eventuality and ensure that a socially distanced trial can take place.
 
Whether this is good enough will depend on personal views and choices.  We are all having to learn to recalibrate our attitude to risk.  Not many of us remember a time before antibiotics and we are having to adjust to a world few of us had ever envisaged and none of us wanted
 
But what does it all amount to anyway?
Everyone has worked out that there will be only be a tiny trickle of trials for the next few weeks.  We can all see that there is no prospect of any significant volume through the Crown Court for months at best.  Unless of course there is a revolution in testing and the science develops to our advantage.  All this is daunting for all of us.
 
So we are exploring every possible way to increase the volume of work – inside and outside the current estate.  In the short term, we have to try everything we can that does not require primary legislation.  None of us can promise any particular thing will work, but it will not stop us trying.  It may be that a combination (pick ‘n’ mix) of solutions each contribute to alleviating the problem.  
 
And in the other Courts?
I continue to receive alarming reports of unsafe arrangements in various Magistrates Courts.  I share them with other Bar Leaders and the Law Society.  Please speak to your most junior tenants and pupils and check all is well.  No one is obliged to accept instructions and act in circumstances which they consider unsafe.  But members of both professions are nobly battling on, sometimes in circumstances which perhaps they should not.  So if you have (anonymised) reports of unsafe conditions in any Magistrates Court, or indeed any other Court or Tribunal, please send it to me immediately and I will try to get it addressed by HMCTS.  
 
 
The Crisis in Civil work is every bit as great:
I hope many of you have completed the survey in the rapid consultation that closes today.  As huge swathes of court work have ceased in the last 7 weeks, the most junior have suffered the largest shortfalls in income.  I am most grateful to all those who have answered my queries and on whom I have relied to provide the evidence which we are submitting.  I know that the debate about Crown Court work tends to dominate public debate, but to all those whose work is in personal injury or the kind of civil work that does not reach the Rolls Building or the RCJ, you are not forgotten.  Across the country, Court work has collapsed almost totally and the little paperwork that is available is not enough to go around.  Even if you have not responded to the consultation, please do keep writing in.  We are actively looking at the changes in technology and listing that need to be made to reopen the pipeline of work.
 
CVP:
The system is rolling out and will help.  There have been tests in a number of Crown Courts across the SEC this week and it is going live.  Your Chambers tech reps have a familiarisation session in the SEC “training room” on Monday, after which they will be able to show you what is possible. 
 
As of today the Video Meeting Room (VMR) service which enables people to remotely join video calls with clients in the following prisons across the country: Belmarsh, Birmingham, Bullingdon, Doncaster, Durham, Elmley, Forest Bank, Hewell, High Down, Hull, Leeds, Lewes, Pentonville, Peterborough Female, Peterborough Male, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs 
 
The list was extended yesterday to include further 9 prisons: Bedford, Bronzefield, Eastwood Park, Foston Hall, Low Newton, New Hall, Nottingham, Styal, Swansea.
 

Instructions on how to connect can be found here.  Like all new systems, human error will creep in while everyone learns, but HMCTS can rightly be proud of the improvement this will bring.
  
Finally:
I was sent a definition today for a new word: “coronacoaster”.  You will each have your own favourite ways to describes the ups and downs of this crisis.  For the Bar, it has felt as though there are far more downs than ups and for good reason many of us feel we face an existential threat.  But these grim times will pass and we will find a way through.  

I am afraid I was not able to attend the wellbeing seminar this afternoon, but I am really grateful to those who arranged it.  Early reports are that it was extremely well received by those who could make it.  I urge you to join next Thursday – the details are below.
 
I hope you have good weekends and find some joy in being able to exercise your new-found rights under the new rules issued by HMG, if you have worked out what they might mean.

 
Yours,
 
Mark Fenhalls QC
Leader of the South Eastern Circuit

leader@southeastcircuit.org.uk
Announcements:

The Barristers' Benevolent Association:
The four Inns, together with the Barristers’ Benevolent Association, have launched a Covid-19 fund to give emergency financial assistance where it is urgently needed at the Bar. This fund will help those members of the Bar who are unable to support themselves and their families during these difficult times.

Their aim is to make emergency grants to barristers who are suffering financial hardship as a result of C19 impeding their ability to work as a barrister, as fairly, swiftly and simply as possible.

For details visit their website and complete the short Covid19 application form and email it to 
covid19@the-bba.com
 
Website: 
the-bba.com Email: covid19@the-bba.com
nicky@the-bba.com or annette@the-bba.com
Telephone: 07887 841302 and 07375 557326
 
The BBA exist to support, help and comfort those members of the Bar in England and Wales and their families and dependents who are in need, distress or difficulties. 

SEC and Bar Mess Events:

ICCA Bar Course:
Junior members of the Bar and 2nd Six pupils
16.30 each day until the Courts reopen

Pupils can book into a session here


Wellbeing:
Coping Mechanisms during this time of Isolation and Social Distancing
Thursday 21st May
18.00 - 19.30

Full details and to book your place

Diversifying your Practice:
An evening in this Summer
18.00 - 20.30
Further details will be announced shortly
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