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Dear Circuiteers,
 
The pace of events is relentless, and we have had an extraordinary week as we adjust to life under these restrictions and the closed courts.  It has been a week of emergency measures and instant responses.  As we reach the weekend we must all look to the next phase as we plan our way out of this and, possibly, dream a little of a world of normality (ish) sometime later this year.
  
Please go to the 
Bar Council website for the latest on what financial measures are available to chambers.  For example, the Bar Council received confirmation yesterday from HMT (via MoJ) that Chambers are eligible for Business Interruption Loans.  Please remember your staff will be as worried as your barristers.
 
Court Closures 

The announcement this morning about the suspension of certain courts across all jurisdictions is designed to make sure that those courts which are operating can do so safely.  We are assured that this is not a precursor to longer closure but is an emergency measure, driven by falling staff numbers/ absenteeism, and is purely designed to keep parts of the system running while this crisis persists.  
 
It is obviously a matter critical national importance to get the Justice System back on its feet.  The starting point will be clean buildings that are safe for their users.  The right technology to be deployed is a whole different issue – please see below.
 
Family
Remote working is the default position in the Family Courts and the national guidance can be found 
here.  Mr Justice MacDonald has produced excellent and clear guidance on remote working that can be accessed here
 
Civil
Remote working is also now the default position in the Civil jurisdictions. The latest practice direction on remote working is 
here. I know from several correspondents that there is a perception that listing of cases has reduced significantly this week.   Having spoken to our Presiders, I know there is an enormous amount of work being done by Judges who are getting used to remote working and there are practical challenges with paper files in civil work.  So please understand there is a real desire to get the system up and running, even though it may take a little longer than you would wish.

Crime
It is a little embarrassing to have to even mention the Criminal Legal Aid Review at a time of national crisis, but the Consultation timetable has been suspended today.  It seems likely that the wider CLAR and Royal Commission will also rightly be suspended while we all address this crisis.   
 
The Criminal Bar is likely to face a challenge unlike that of any other jurisdiction due to the pause injury trials for the foreseeable future. In those circumstances we must try and progress as much work through the system as we can. I have spoken to our Chief Crown Prosecutors and they will do what they can to keep the work flowing, though as you appreciate in the short term there will be far less work available generally as the police are stretched even further than usual. They will use the Bar wherever they can and, as you know, are looking to accelerate payment wherever possible.  
 
Technology
Regardless of your practice area this week has seen us move very rapidly into a world where remote hearings are the default position. These hearings will undoubtedly challenge us to engage with unfamiliar procedures and technology. 
 
The best solution would be a single platform to be used across the jurisdictions.  Zoom is good enough for the Cabinet and ought to be good enough for the courts.  But that is for another day.  
 
Most Crown Court Judges only have access to the outdated, and soon to be obsolete “Skype for Business” and BT conference calling. 
Please see this letter from one of our Presiders on the subject, published today.  So we will try and make this work in the short term.  But some Judges are using Microsoft Teams (which is replacing Skype) and others are willing to be flexible, so the reality is you are just going to have to practice, do your best and deal with a changing and challenging environment while we all try and make this work.  I am hugely grateful to three Circuiteers for some outstanding work over the last two days drawing together this practical guide “how to” use Skype for Business/ Teams in the Crown Court.  We do not pretend these are perfect but they are a start and hope they help.    

Last but not least, Pupils
I am sure it hardly needs saying, but can I ask you to make sure you have thought about your pupils’ welfare too.  They will be feeling exposed and frightened.  More on this subject and what we might be able to do for them early next week.
 
In these extraordinary times, I have been so impressed with the way that those on Circuit have gone above and beyond to try to ensure the continuing functioning of the justice system. While worrying about personal health and finances, you have shown a commitment to your profession which is heartening. We will get through this by supporting each other and will take as many positives as we can from it, to improve our working conditions, such as cleaner courts and remote hearings where appropriate.
 
Please feel free to 
email me if you have concerns or comments, or use the designated SEC email address for issues with cleanliness etc at those courts which remain open for business - hygiene@southeastcircuit.org.uk.


Best Wishes to you all,
 
Mark

Mark Fenhalls QC
Leader of the South Eastern Circuit
07711675229
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