The Opening of the Legal Year took place yesterday without the traditional opportunity for the public to gawp at ceremonial robes on show in Parliament Square. Shiny shoes remained in cupboards and full-bottomed wigs went unborrowed. The reimagined day ended with a socially distanced service at Temple Church. The congregation was not allowed to sing, but a small choir was permitted and the music was truly glorious. It was never going to be as good as having a packed church and everyone participating, but it was much better than nothing. The Lord Chancellor delivered the address. Amongst the readers were the President of the American Bar Association, the Chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, The President of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe and the President of the Pan African Bar Union, beamed in from the four corners of the world. It is not just the courts which have undergone a digital revolution in 2020. You can hear it all for the next five days accessible through www.templechurch.com.
Lawyers and Judges from many countries would ordinarily have been in London this week to celebrate something that is both ours and a global legal event. Our legal system has had a worldwide role, and we are going to have to fight to maintain that. As a nation we have spent a lot of time over the last three years arguing about what we do not like, but rather less deciding what we might want in the future and how we see the UK’s role in the world. Let us hope the next three months make things a little clearer.
This week I have visited two possible “Nightingale” sites in the London area with Judges and HMCTS staff. We are all deeply frustrated by the steady / stately (choose your adjective) pace in providing more and more physical space for jury trials and other hearings. I believe the Lord Chancellor and HMCTS remain committed to opening up more court rooms and keeping our justice system functioning. But for some time it has been obvious that the physical space is only a part of the issue.
Court staffing levels, tests for coughing or feverish defendants, jurors, advocates and Judges… tales from the county court of fast track trials repeatedly being vacated because of lack of Judges… these are the problems that are going to challenge us through the autumn and winter. Nothing in this messy, complicated, depressing picture is straightforward.
Criminal chambers and barristers in particular are feeling the financial pain and worry. But the emotional toll on all of us is considerable. Six months of misery, with the threat of six more ahead is not good for anyone’s morale. We have all become more isolated and insular. Please pause and ask yourself if there is a friend or colleagues who you should check up on. And if there is, do something about it.
This week I have had detailed discussions or meetings with four of our Resident Judges, including a trip today to Canterbury, where I have finished this note. HHJ James and I discussed the usual range of challenges faced by all Resident Judges in addressing the burgeoning trial backlog: staff numbers, jury enthusiasm and resilience; the balance of custody and bail trials and CTLs; delivery of screens and whether they actually fit; how many jurors they can fit in their buildings; space behind the scenes in deliberation rooms; capacity in the cells; making sure the pool of “ready-to-go” backer cases is big enough to allow court and parties some flexibility, but not so big that people are endlessly preparing cases that will either never be reached or at least not when advocates are available… the list of complexities is long indeed.
Hanging over us all is the threat of more waves of Covid. I also know from my discussions with all Resident Judges, not just this week, that they are keenly aware of the threat of increased infection rates, balancing footfall and the economic challenges faced by so many, young and not so young, after the collapse in trial work this year. Everyone wants more trial capacity and understands the importance of not letting ancillary hearings impede the progress of trials, wherever possible. Importantly all the Judges are committed to keeping an open mind about applications to attend remotely as the autumn unfolds. Obviously the better prepared a case is, and the earlier you make the application, the more likely it is to be successful.
Last week you should all have received an email from the Bar Council setting out a range of training and courses that are available. One that might be of particular interest to someone in your chambers is the leadership programme. You have to be between 7-15 years call. I hope you have all encouraged someone to apply.
I wish you all a very good weekend