Guest post: Open Letter to Leaders of the Criminal Justice System – Call for a National Protocol

I am delighted to host this guest post by Beheshteh Engineer, a third-six pupil. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of her chambers.

Why is a functional Criminal Justice System important during a national crisis?

During a short-term national crisis, the CJS must provide two key functions:

  • To deal with urgent matters e.g. bail apps, warrants, CTLs
  • To protect the vulnerable from immediate harm.

We call for a national protocol to address how courts must work during this crisis.

We suggest the following principles for the operation of courts:

  1. The protocol must minimise the risk to the health of court staff and users, following government guidance.
  2. The protocol must allow the CJS to continue to provide its two key functions.
  3. The protocol must default to adjourning cases where the above two principles cannot be met.

Globally, many courts have begun to impose restrictions on cases (CJEU, New Zealand, Canada, some American states, have all closed courts except for the most urgent cases)

What are the current problems?

The current system presents 3 distinct problems:

  • That we are all required to self-distance, but court attendance requires the opposite, and
  • That the government has only adjourned trials with a TE of 3 days or more, and
  • That we do not currently have a set up that allows us to do most hearings remotely, thus requiring people to continue to attend court in person.

Social distancing

We are all being told to practice social distancing and as of 20 March, the government ordered bars and other shops, to close. Doctors all over social and traditional media are imploring people to stay at home. The message is clear: people should not be going out unless they are essential.

In the past week, we have seen the following: people coming to court displaying the symptoms, prisons bringing sick defendants to court, jurors/advocates/witnesses going into self-isolation, and a total lack of cleanliness, or hand gel, or soap, or masks, or hand sanitizer, or protective screens available in courts. Juniors with health issues are still attending court; those who are second and third six pupils feel they have no choice.

Government’s response

The government has adopted a halfway house approach by only adjourning trials three days or longer. Those in charge of the CJS continue to advocate ‘business as normal’ while all other branches of government sound the alarm.

The Bar leadership has said that anyone in an at-risk category or anyone who feels that working conditions are unsafe, can return cases with no ethical problems. This is welcome leadership on this issue. More is needed; those not in the at-risk category can still carry the virus, potentially infecting their own families and anyone else they come into contact with at court. Court advocates, particularly those most junior, are frightened, both for their health and their incomes

Additionally, the government has not yet put in place the resources to protect the self-employed from finding themselves without work and thus, without income. Many have children and mortgages to pay for, others have rent and basic expenses. Many of us at the criminal Bar are struggling and right now, going to court may be the only option, even if that will put ourselves and those we live with, at risk of getting the virus

Lack of investment in technology for the criminal courts

Papers in Crown Court cases are now all on DCS and the courts occasionally use video links where a defendant is in custody. Video links often fail to work, and there are insufficient video links to run the court system at even close to full capacity. Consequently, we have continued to conduct most hearings in person. There are good reasons for this; often material is not uploaded until the day of the hearing, a client has to enter a plea and instructions need to be taken. Nevertheless, the reality remains that there has not been proper investment in technology use in the CJS. As a result, it will require leadership and investment to switch to a system where many hearings are virtual.

Leadership to date on this issue has been poor. The CEO of HMCTS’s letter to the Chair of the BC on 19 March 2020 says that the senior judiciary has given guidance on encouraging the wider judiciary to use telephone and video hearings. There is also a link to this site, guidance which reads, “The decision as to how a hearing is conducted is a matter for the judge, magistrates or panel, who will determine how best to uphold the interests of justice.” This means that all courts can operate according to their own rules. We are already hearing of plenty of cases where a client’s attendance has not been excused despite a reasonable request, as well as hearings in the CC being refused to be conducted by video when there is no good reason for physical attendance.

At a time of national crisis, this is a woeful response from HMCTS and senior leaders. It is also a deeply inefficient way to run any kind of system, never mind one of such importance.

The civil Bar, family Bar as well as some Tribunals are already ahead of us on this; they either already regularly use digital technology or have implemented a new protocol. Cases have been conducted (and won!) from advocates’ living rooms. If other Bars and Courts can manage remote hearings, we can too.

How can we solve some or all of these issues?

We should be limiting the number of people going to court. We should be protecting those who have to attend court. There should be no room for courts to do things on a court-by-court basis.

We must not continue in a way that puts our health, the health of our families and the general public, at risk. Continuing as we are will only help spread the virus further.

This letter suggests that we create a national protocol – similar to a practice direction – to address how every single court should manage their work during this time of crisis. Decisions need to be centralised and as new problems emerge, decisions must be taken and publicised online. We need to use technology as much as we can.

We also have to communicate updates as clearly as possible. Recent example today: jurors being told they had to attend court tomorrow (Monday) while being in an at-risk group. The message came back that they are excused. The question has to be asked, why are we doing this on twitter? We need a clear method of communication that is accessible to all.

We know that all the various legal bodies are meeting with the Ministry of Justice to lobby them for a proper plan. We add our voices to that. These are complex problems that require a great deal of thought, creativity, and effort to resolve.

How might such a national protocol work?

Suggestions for the protocol must both address issues of law and detail the ways in which we are going to take action. It is no good having vague suggestions and leaving each court to figure out how to implement it, because that way nothing will get done. We need to address the practical issues. This letter has attempted to do so, and in doing so you may find that some ideas are simply not workable at this time. Irrespective, we have a duty to not only think hard about these matters but to publish and debate these ideas so that we can keep people safe.

We propose the following immediate rules:

  1. All trials in the Crown and Magistrates’ Courts, to be adjourned to 01 June 2020.
  2. All other hearings to be by video link OR telephone.
  3. Clients to be excused from hearings as standard.
  4. Issue of Credit to be temporarily adjusted.
  5. CTL extensions, bail applications and other urgent matters to be treated sensibly.
  6. We need a new arrangement for magistrates’ court hearings.
  7. We need a new protocol for those in custody.
  8. Should a court hearing in person remain essential, anyone in custody suspected of having the virus should not be brought to court.
  9. Protocol put in place to protect everyone at police stations

How might these things work in practice?

  1. All trials in the Crown and Magistrates’ Courts, to be adjourned to 01 June 2020 Rationale:
    1. It is important to set a fixed date for when trials might resume, even if these are later abandoned. Dates to work to focus the mind.
    2. Stage dates to be put back so that work continues.
    3. Re-arranging listing on such a scale as we are seeing even if it remains just those with TE 3 days or more, is going to take time and proper thought. We should not do this on the fly otherwise there will be chaos.
    4. Such re-listing then needs to be properly communicated to all parties and should take into account advocates’ diaries, so that they do not lose out.
    5. If all hearings are virtual and all clients excused as standard this saves 100s of hours of manpower – all that then needs to be done is for clients to be told that they don’t need to attend court.
    6. If this is the default position, then hearings can continue in a way that avoids an advocate having to announce that they are in at at-risk group or are scared of attending court or who have some other legitimate reason.
    7. This also helps to preserve income, an important point. Many of us working in the CJS are self-employed; we need to attend hearings so we can get paid. We are not currently being afforded much support from the government.

    How might this work in practical terms?

    1. Listing are obviously the point people to arrange virtual hearings and will need to find a sensible way to schedule hearing times. This is done in the crown court and it can be done in the magistrates. Cases should also be re-fixed to accommodate advocates’ diaries so those booked to have trials do not lose out.
    2. Each court has to work out what technology they will use: skype, Teams, something else? Many barristers and HHJs are working together to try and figure out what works but we need a proper system. Also, I’m not PC users are having difficulty with skype for business. We are going to waste hours in court, at risk to our health, if we’re all trying to figure this out on the day.
    3. Once each court has figured out what tech they can use, this has to be communicated clearly on a single website acting as one point of reference.
    4. Chambers and Solicitors firms already have a list of emails and contact numbers for listing offices. These should be shared with advocates so that they can send individual email sand track hearings themselves [without the middle man] to ensure that matters are arranged sensibly and to take into consideration whether or not an advocate can do a telephone or video hearing or if other provisions need to be made.
    5. We should also share email addresses of those advocates at the CPS down to do a particular hearing so that CPS and defence can communicate in advance and so that the Crown can/attempt to upload relevant papers onto DCS in good time.
  2. All other hearings to be by video link OR telephone
    1. Hearings that can be done by delegated powers e.g. adjournment or CMH
    2. If parties email the listing office with the issues to address, this can be passed to the requisite court on the day of the hearing, and will save time.
  3. Clients to be excused from hearings as standard.
  4. Issue of Credit to be temporarily amended:
    1. If pleas need to be taken, the parties should work together to narrow down the issues ahead of time. This requires the Crown to upload material earlier than the day of the hearing. It requires effort and forward thinking to work.
    2. Where a G plea cannot reasonably be put in, everyone is to put in a NG plea and credit must be preserved until such time as 1) CPS serve all material and 2) counsel have been able to take instructions. We need detailed guidance on this. Defendants must not lose out. Same rule to be applied in the magistrates’ court.
  5. CTL extensions, bail applications and other urgent matters to be treated sensibly:
    1. Extending a CTL should not be routine
    2. Matters should be on a case-by-case basis: e.g. *some* defendants in an at-risk group should be strongly considered for release on stringent bail conditions.
    3. For other cases (maybe DVs) where there’s no bail conditions, Crown might want to apply for some? Ensure protection of potential victims?
    4. New cases should be bailed with conditions where appropriate.
  6. For magistrates’ courts:
    1. Papers for first appearances usually only arrive on the morning of the hearing. This will be difficult to change as it is the CPS that produces these papers. If the CPS can produce these bundles the night before the hearing, that would assist.
    2. Advocates can set up video conferences or telephone hearings with clients remotely to attend on the day of the hearing. As soon as they have the papers, the conferences can be held.
    3. The only remaining issue is how to list matters in a magistrates’ court: traditionally it is whomever is ready goes on first. If hearings are being done remotely, there will have to be a system or rule in place to decide who can call in.
    4. It may well be that the legal advisor or clerk in court will have access to a system whereby they can determine who is going to be heard next.
    5. First appearances and business in the magistrates’ courts, for it to continue working ‘as normal’ will require significant thought. It may be that some of these problems cannot be overcome anytime soon. They also require effort and someone to care enough to design a system so that these can be done remotely. There is a workable solution, but it requires all parties to work together and for those in authority to have the significant desire to make it work.
  7. For those in custody (predominately but not solely in the magistrates’):
    1. Conferences should take place by video-link wherever possible. However, we acknowledge that whether a defendant is on video from prison or in custody in the cells, a video-link may not always be possible. This is both a technical and legal hurdle that may take time to address.
    2. In the interim, no one should be required to hold a conference with someone in the cells where the court does not have a glass divider. In such cases, conferences should be held in a court room or other room available so that representatives are not put at risk.
  8. Should a court hearing in person remain essential, anyone in custody suspected of having the virus should not be brought to court.
  9. Protocol put in place to protect everyone at police stations
    1. police station representatives are reporting disparity of process when it comes to being asked to rep someone suspected of having the virus. There should be a protocol in place.

Other points

Following feedback from practitioners, a few other points are worth noting:

  • Some hearings have been “saved” by use of FaceTime. Some others are suggesting Zoom. There is a range of technology available but not all of it will be secure, or available to everyone. This may well be a problem.
  • Special provisions need to be put in in place for vulnerable people: complainants, witnesses and defendants. For example, a defendant with a MH issue or lack of good internet may not have the ability to participate in a virtual hearing. The issue of what to do when an interpreter is needed, should also be considered.
  • Every step taken into a police station is fraught with areas where someone can come into contact with the virus. The custody sergeant is responsible for the safety of police station representatives yet often a representative is taken immediately to a consultation room so there’s no option to speak to the custody sergeant unless it is insisted upon. We’re also being told that areas in the police station (the consultation room, amongst others) are not being regularly cleaned.
  • Prisoners should be considered for release, where appropriate.
  • If the plan is to keep courts open for as long as possible, there needs to be a nation-wide rollout of soap, hand sanitizer, wipes and a proper cleaning regime in place.

Conclusion

It is the case that with many of these things, what will suffer is the principle of open justice. That is a dilemma that needs to be thoughtfully considered.

The ideas in this letter are just one way to address matters. There may be problems with the ideas suggested – they are not perfect. But they are a start and hopefully a platform to encourage discussion.

We must work together to limit the spread of this disease while maintaining the criminal justice system.

Author: Beheshteh Engineer, junior criminal barrister (3rd six)

Views are those of the author alone, and not representative of those of her chambers.

 

One thought on “Guest post: Open Letter to Leaders of the Criminal Justice System – Call for a National Protocol

  1. A very interesting and well-structured essay, thank you. However, it argues from the wrong premise – the measures put in place by the government are not to *prevent* transmission of the virus, but to slow it down. The assumptions being made are that, a) eventually, everyone will have the virus, b) controlling the rate of transmission will keep pressure on healthcare provision within manageable limits, and c) having a continuous but reduced rate of transmission will avoid multiple peaks of increased demand.*

    This does not excuse the lack of hygiene provision in courts, nor the apparent use of the court system as a vector for continuous infection (whether accidentally or by design). The issues around people vulnerable to a serious response to infection by the virus are very well-made regardless of the model being used – the unequivocal advice to this group is to avoid the type of social contact that is inevitable in court attendance.

    If the essay argued from an understanding of this model, most of the key points would remain the same, but the underlying concern that barristers etc are being put at especial risk would carry less weight. The issue of courts as a vector would be interesting to follow up (I wonder if future data-analysis of how the virus transmission progressed will show a strong correlation with attending courts).

    *I am not qualified to assess the merits of the model and so simply present it here.

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