The Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland yesterday praised lawyers for their “heroic efforts” in trying to keep trials going during the coronavirus pandemic.
He also acknowledged that the lockdown measures introduced on Monday might well lead to an increase in domestic violence and online crime as people stayed indoors.
Giving evidence to the justice select committee, Mr Buckland praised the profession while arguing that it was not “fair to judge us as harshly as some people are doing, bearing in mind the priority of a functioning justice system”.
He said it was “essential” that the courts could go on processing cases, otherwise there could be an “alarming backlog” when the crisis was over.
Mr Buckland said the Ministry of Justice and prisons service also had “established plans to deal with pandemics”, but “this particular challenge” had arisen quite suddenly.
“It has involved the whole of government having to respond at great pace to changing events, and the pressures on the court system and the prison and probation service are acute.”
Sitting alongside him, Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), said the service had a “generic plan for pandemic flu” which has had to be “adjusted” in the light of the Covid-19 outbreak.
She explained that, “as with almost everyone in these circumstances, some parts of the plan had to be adjusted as we saw the situation developing”.
She went on: “Our plan focused particularly on having people ill within the court system and those who come to court and less on a response to widespread lockdown and social distancing measures.”
Ms Acland-Hood said video and audio hearings were taking place wherever possible, but “we are better set up in some jurisdictions than others” and crime was a particular problem because of the need to “move between fixed locations”.
She said the number of audio accounts available to the courts was being rapidly scaled up, so that it already covered two-thirds of the total caseload.
Ms Acland-Hood said she expected 600 audio hearings to take place yesterday, though she “could not promise that this number will be achieved”.
She said cleanliness and social distancing had been “a challenge” for the courts – for example she had reminded security staff that they did not need to put their hands in bags.
Sir Bob Neil, committee chair, said there had been concerns about cleanliness in the courts for a long time and the current crisis was simply “building on it”. He cited the example of a lack of soap in the ladies’ toilets at Preston Crown Court.
Mr Acland-Hood said it was “colossally difficult” for HMCTS to get hold of hand sanitiser, and had obtained some in South Africa, only for South Africa to ban all flights to the UK.
She said a switch by HMCTS to a new cleaning contract on 1 April would normally be “really good news”, but not in the current circumstances.
She said HMCTS expected to see family work rise as a result of the lockdown and was “very concerned” about domestic violence.
Mr Buckland agreed and predicted that online crime, including abuse, would rise as people spent more time online.