Dear Fellow Circuiteer,
This letter is being sent on behalf of all of the Circuit Leaders to all members of the Circuits. It is the first of what we hope will be a regular series of communications to you that will enable us to ensure, in so far as is possible, that there is a consistent line of communication to you all. We are meeting daily by video or telephone conference to enable us to work together to promote and protect your best interests at this difficult time. We are liaising with the Bar Council, judiciary, HMCTS and specialist associations, recognising that a joined-up approach to these urgent issues will be most productive.
There is no doubt that we face, as a nation and as a profession, an unprecedented challenge that will likely persist for many months. There is equally no doubt that we will get through this together. The continued operation of a Justice System is essential in our democracy and we must all play our part in the national effort to continue providing essential services.
That said, the state must also acknowledge that a ‘business as usual’ approach of the sort currently promoted in some quarters is wholly unrealistic. There must be a balance struck between the operation of the essential functions of the Courts and the health and wellbeing of those who work in them. There is also a need for clear and unambiguous directions from the senior judiciary as to the continued operation of the Courts and Tribunals that we can be confident will be followed throughout the Country. This is not a time for local practice directions or inconsistent messages from individual Judges. We welcome, as examples, the clear and practical messages from the President of the Family Division, and from the Lord Chief Justice today, that the default position in civil and family hearings is remote working.
The most important part of this message is to remind you to put your health and that of your family first. The guidance from the Government and Public Health England is clear and accessible. You can find it all here.
If you have symptoms do not come to Court.
If a family member has symptoms do not come to Court.
If you have an underlying health condition or are otherwise advised to self-isolate do not come to Court.
If you decide not to go to court because you feel it unsafe because of working conditions- including the unsanitary conditions which you are reporting in many courts- you will have the support of the Circuit. Bar Standards Board guidance is here
This is not the time to ‘soldier on’. Follow the Government advice. Please.
We will all, of course, do what can to keep our court systems running without putting health at risk.
The President of the Family Division has issued definitive guidance for the conduct of Family cases nationally. The clear message is that all hearings should be conducted remotely unless is it safe and essential for an in person hearing to take place. You are entitled to make your own decision about what is safe. You are not compelled to attend if you conclude that you cannot safely do so. We stand with you and if this national guidance is not respected by any Judge please contact your Circuit Leader to give you any assistance you need.
We do not advocate an end to Jury trials for an indefinite period. Rather, we urge the senior Judiciary to pause the trial lists for all trials for a fixed period of time – initially perhaps 6 weeks or a shorter time if the necessary technology can be put into place sooner. There are two distinct advantages to this approach.
Firstly, a planned pause would enable the Judiciary, HMCTS and the Bar to work up proposals together for the resumption of trials with necessary and appropriate changes to ensure that when they resume they can safely be conducted and stand some chance of being resolved.
Secondly a pause of the trial lists will be far less disruptive than the current attempt to ‘soldier on’ with short cases. If the list is paused then it can resume in list order. That means that cases do not need to be re-fixed, the Bar can retain ownership of its cases and the prospects of resolution are enhanced.
Resolution of criminal Cases Listed for Trial
The Circuit Leaders have pressed for a national approach to the adjournment of all cases longer than 3 days.
We invite the Court to list all of those cases that have been adjourned for mention on or before their original trial date with parties and the defendant to attend by videolink or telephone. The purpose of listing cases is in the hope that they can be resolved. Now more than ever is the time to be proactive in seeking to reach sensible compromise in cases and we are confident that the Judiciary will play their part. This is not about seeking an inappropriate resolution but about working together like never before to act in the best interests of all parties in a time of national crisis. For cases which cannot be resolved we seek to ensure so far as possible that cases are trial-ready once the embargo is lifted.
We encourage you all to look ahead at your listed cases, get in touch with your opponents and see which cases can be resolved. If you need Judicial assistance to resolve a case then seek it. We have a positive obligation to do everything we can to reduce pressure on the entire Criminal Justice System.
Hearings in Person
Hearings should be conducted remotely wherever possible. The Lord Chief Justice has issued guidance to all Courts Judiciary today to that effect in the Civil and Family Jurisdiction.
The same must apply to all Criminal Cases other than the trials that are continuing and we are seeking a national protocol to that effect as a matter of urgency. In the meantime Judges should be allowing you to attend by telephone or other means. We welcome the significant understanding which Judges have shown to advocates across the country. If anyone insists on the unnecessary attendance of the parties then please communicate this to your Circuit Leader as a matter of urgency. Common sense must prevail.
You will all have read or heard the measures announced by the Chancellor for small business. We are seeking urgent confirmation that Chambers will be eligible. We hope that you are provided with definitive guidance this week. A summary of the current measures has been helpful published by the Bar Council here.
There are negotiations ongoing to see what changes can be made to payment for publicly funded work. There are conversations with HMRC over deferment of tax and VAT liabilities. We will do all we can to provide guidance this week as to the help available.
This is a time, is it not, for those on Circuit who have particular expertise in tax, finance or business to volunteer to assist Circuit in these discussions and to assist with how best to communicate that message and to unpick any government guidance. Please make yourself known to your Circuit or Circuit Administrator. Your fellow Circuiteers need you.
Bar Mutual and Practice Certificates
We are pressing for arrangements to defer or spread the cost of both through the year. We will let you know as soon as the position has been clarified but are hopeful that a sensible accommodation will be reached.
HMCTS has announced measures to allow greater use of alternative technology in the Courts to facilitate remote hearings. The announcement is here amongst the general guidance for dealing with the virus.
HMCTS are working with the Judiciary to provide the necessary technology to make this possible and there is a detailed guide about new technology released today here.
Some of us are very proficient in the use of technology, others of us are not. Each Leader needs volunteers to act as Circuit IT buddies to enable us all to make use of these technologies. Please contact your Circuit Leader or Office with offers of help.
We repeat our message to you all – your health must come first. That aside however we must do our part to preserve the justice system at this time of crisis. The public would expect nothing less from us and we must deliver. We will stand with you and continue to work tirelessly to that end.
Keep safe and Best Wishes to all of you
Kate Brunner QC Leader of the Western Circuit
Mike Duck QC Leader of the Midland Circuit
David Elias QC Leader of the Wales and Chester Circuit
Mark Fenhalls QC Leader of the South Eastern Circuit
Lisa Roberts QC Leader of the Northern Circuit
Richard Wright QC Leader of the North Eastern Circuit