Coronavirus – From the recorder of Preston

This was issued today by the recorder of Preston.

To the Barristers & Solicitors Practising in the Lancashire Crown Courts

Dear all,

Please forgive the impersonal nature of this message and I hope you will understand it is impossible to contact everyone directly. It has indeed been a dramatic week and the impact of the Covid-19 virus will be significant on the legal profession.

The judiciary appreciates that many of you will be concerned and anxious about the future. This message is intended to inform you what is happening in the Lancashire Crown Courts and the way in which we are planning to deal with the work. Of course, the situation is changing rapidly so that any planning will have to take account of a moving landscape.

Following the Prime Minister’s Statement on Monday (16th March), the Lord Chief Justice decided that all trials of 3 days+ listed before the 30th April should not go ahead.

In Lancashire there are 39 trials falling into this category of which 11 are custody cases. These 39 cases represent a significant proportion of the trial work and for this reason there are no trials listed on Monday (23rd March). It is planned that in the coming week probably on Thursday and Friday (26th and 27th March) the cases will be listed for mention and fix when there can be a stock-take about them.

Any defendants in custody will appear over the prison video link so custody time limits can be considered and if any of you wish for defendants on bail to attend, then please inform the Preston daily listing officer.

A final decision has not been made about the relisting of the work though at present it appears cases up to 5 days can be listed in October. My concern is that some cases will already have been delayed and it may be unfair they are being pushed back to later in the year. Also, if the Lord Chief Justice was to decide that all trials should not be listed then the whole situation will have to be reviewed.

If it is possible for any of the cases to be resolved, then the judges will assist within the normal parameters available to them. The advantage of the cases being listed in this way is that you can have an influence on a new date.

There are other practical challenges which have arisen during the last week. You will probably have heard the Witness Service will not be operating from Monday (23rd March) because a lot of the volunteers are over 70 years old. The burden of managing witnesses will inevitably fall on the CPS or defence. HMCTS has directed that court and administrative staff who are either over 70 or have a relevant underlying health condition should self-isolate for the next 12 weeks.

A large proportion of the Lancashire staff fall into this group and it means the staff will be significantly depleted. We will only be able to operate around five Crown Courts because of insufficient ushers/court clerks. It has been decided the work should be centralised at Ringway because it will be easier to manage. Therefore, it is likely the other Crown Courts will not be used, and it is appreciated this will have a big impact though it is hoped it will only be a short-term measure.

The other change is the caterers at Ringway will not be providing a service on Monday (23rd March) when they will be reviewing their position. Given the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday (20th March) about cafes and restaurants being closed, it may affect them as well so Ringway may lose them until the crisis is over.

The administrative staff are continuing to receive many requests from witnesses and defendants who are seeking excusal from attending court. Every request will be considered on its merits and the guidance issued by the Senior Presiding Judge is being applied. It is likely many of the cases will be listed for a hearing so a new trial date can be fixed.

No final decision has been made about when the cases might be relisted and if there is a hearing then you can have a say about it. Again, if you think it might be possible for a case to be resolved so wish a defendant to attend the hearing, do inform the listing officer.

Finally, some barristers or solicitor advocates have made requests to appear at hearings by video link or telephone. The listing officer has been informed that any request to appear over video link should be granted if possible but please appreciate it does create extra burdens for the staff. That is why the use of video link this way has been restricted but given the current crisis the practice has been relaxed. Nonetheless, the staff is depleted and do understand that if there are many requests it may not be possible to grant them all.

Although telephone hearings may be suitable for civil or family justice work, at the present time the criminal courtrooms are not really equipped for it and such requests will not be granted.

You are encouraged to ensure you have Skype Business because it is likely that in the coming weeks there will be greater use of it in the Crown Courts.

Your commitment and dedication helping to keep the Lancashire Crown Courts operating is much appreciated. My philosophy is that the Crown Court is the ‘sum of the parts’ and you have a critical role ensuring it continues to function. It is vital you remain healthy and virus free and I urge you to follow the Government advice about it.

You have my best wishes as you face a challenging and difficult time ahead and you can be assured the judges will do what they can to support you.

Mark Brown

His Honour Judge Mark Brown Resident Judge for Lancashire and Recorder of Preston

Addendum: We have tried to fill the gaps with appeal cases but the virus is having an impact on the availability of magistrates. Also, sentences often need pre-sentence reports and the Probation Service is facing the same challenges over staffing.

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