Rachel Cairnes, policy and public affairs adviser at the Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO), responded to the Civil Justice Council (CJC) rapid consultation on 'The impact of COVID-19 measures on the civil justice system'.
"The COVID-19 pandemic presents unprecedented challenges to the effective operation of the civil justice system. The overriding concern during the current crisis must be to protect lives and to ensure the safety of professional court users, claimants and others. While the lockdown and social-distancing measures remain enforced, it follows that video and audio hearings should be conducted on a more regular basis. In agreement with the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, “the rule of law is vital to a functioning democracy and even at times like these, it is essential that our independent courts are able to administer justice”. However, serious questions arise as to lack of data currently available on the use of remote hearings, including the impact upon the quality of justice and what implications the measures have had on consumers.
"Before the pandemic, the court system was characterised by a high backlog of claims and delays of many months in getting cases underway. Civil justice statistics released by the Ministry of Justice show that in the last quarter of 2019, the mean time for small claims and multi/fast track claims to go to trial was 37.1 weeks (over 9 months) and 60.9 weeks (over 15 months) respectively. It is highly likely that the pandemic will aggravate these issues, despite receipts of cases in the civil courts having fallen by 88 per cent. Transparency is required as to the extent of the backlog, how the backlog will impact upon court timetables, and what measure HMCTS and the Ministry of Justice will take to ensure the backlog eases.
"During a meeting with the Justice Select Committee on 4th May 2020, Justice Minister Chris Philp MP stated that the crisis has led to a 49 per cent fall in the number of civil and criminal hearings being conducted. On the 27th April, the most recent day for which figures were available, 4,066 hearings were conducted. Of those hearings, 3,458 (85 per cent) were held via video and/or audio link. However, no information has yet been provided on the quality of these remote hearings, including what types of hearings are taking place, whether they involve vulnerable parties, witness evidence, and if the parties involved consider the hearing to be a success.
"The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has highlighted how remote hearings lead to a heightened risk that disabled people may not be able to realise their right to a fair trial if their specific needs are not recognised and met. In addition, remote hearings have the potential to significantly hinder communication and understanding for people with learning disabilities and mental health disorders. While we acknowledge the unprecedented challenges that have arisen as a result of coronavirus, serious questions remain as to how the current measures have impacted upon the most vulnerable in our society. Access to justice must be preserved for all, including witnesses and defendants who are vulnerable. Whilst we acknowledge that there exists no easy solution to this problem, it is essential that further information is made available on the quality of justice received by consumers during remote hearings."