Much has been in the press recently regarding the Criminal Court system, both in the Magistrates and Crown Courts, with headlines such as “Coronavirus sends justice system into 'meltdown' as criminal court case backlog passes 37,000” (The Independent - 29 March 2020).
Crown Courts, which deal with the most serious criminal cases, are dealing with a range of work, much of which is being done remotely. This includes sentencing hearings and all urgent applications, including applications for bail and applications to extend custody time limits. Crown Court Jury Trials have only just very recently started to be heard in 4 designated Crown Courts using strict safety guidelines. Magistrates’ courts, which deal with less serious criminal matters, continue on to deal work deemed to be urgent, which includes Domestic Violence incidents.
The County Court, which deals with civil (non-criminal) matters, also faces similar challenges to the Criminal Courts during the current pandemic. Unlike criminal cases – in which the state prosecutes an individual – civil court cases arise where an individual or a business believes their rights have been infringed.
The types of civil case dealt with in the County Court include:
- Businesses trying to recover money they are owed;
- Individuals seeking compensation for injuries;
- Landlords/Lenders recovering Possession of a property from tenants or those in default of a mortgage;
- Landowners seeking orders that will prevent trespass.
All County Court centres are able to deal with contract and tort (civil wrong) cases and recovery of land actions. Some hearing centres are also able to deal with bankruptcy and insolvency matters, as well as cases relating to wills and trusts (contested probate actions), matters under the Equality Act 2010, and actions which all parties agree to have heard in a county court for example a defamation case (Libel/Slander).
The courts in England and Wales have, and continue to take steps to try and allow claims to continue, while reducing the number of workers on the premises to allow for social distancing. The Ministry of Justice has divided courts into 3 categories:–
- fully open where litigants can attend court, for example Carlisle;
- working but not open to the public for example West Cumbria; and
- suspended (closed) for example Lancaster.
The fully open courts are of course having to try and deal with priority and urgent matters and, at present, there are 159 out of the 351 County Courts in England and Wales which are still open fully for business with a further 155 staffed with Judge and Court staff working, but closed to the general public.
To enable the Courts to decide which work is urgent and therefore a priority they have produced a list setting out the types of cases which are likely to fall into either the Priority 1 (cases which must be dealt with) and Priority 2 (cases which can be dealt with). The type of cases deemed as Priority 1 cases are for example, Applications for Anti-Social Behaviour/Harassment Injunctions, Homelessness Applications and those with a real time/continuing element such as interference with property/goods.
There are other matters normally dealt with by the County Courts which are currently suspended. Following the Government passing the Coronavirus Act 2020 and Senior Judges making subsequent Orders, all Residential and Commercial Property Possession cases were adjourned for a period of 3 months from the end of March and evictions suspended where a Possession Order had already been obtained prior to the crisis.
Whilst there are still Courts open to the general public, wherever possible and practical, hearings are being dealt with by telephone or video conferencing. Whilst the use telephone hearing is not new, the Courts and Lawyers alike have had to quickly get in place systems to deal with the massive increase. This has been compounded by most lawyers now working from home. I am glad to say most, including ourselves, have been able to adapt quickly to this change.
For those who are owed money and have obtained a County Court Judgment (CCJ) against a debtor, some enforcement procedures are currently not available. High Court Enforcement Officers and County Court Bailiffs will not visit premises, although they will continue to make contact with debtors by other means to seek payment. All other forms of enforcement are still available but, given the pressures on the Courts both in terms of their workload and court staff absences, we are finding turnaround times are slower than we would normally expect.
The reduction in Courts able to deal with cases and staff absences throughout the Court system means that a backlog is naturally building up. We suspect this will have a knock-on effect for some time after the current restrictions have been lifted and this will be compounded by a large number of Possession Cases being issued at the end of June 2020, when the current 3 months suspension on issuing new Possession Proceedings and enforcing existing Possession Order comes to an end.
If you would like to speak to someone within our Dispute Resolution team please contact our offices on 01228 552222 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that both telephone and video appointments can be arranged during this period of self-isolation.