COVID-19 AND THE MANCHESTER CROWN COURTS – WEATHERING THE STORM
On 24/3/20 all members of the Northern Circuit received an unprecedented directive: Do Not Go To Court. That message was replicated on all other circuits. It was without limit of time. Following overnight liaison with the Lord Chief Justice the representative bodies of the nation’s barristers had moved to withdraw our services from court.
The judicial approach had hitherto been “business as usual”: there was an important social need for justice to be seen to be done, for a functioning justice system to be showing its face.
HHJ Stockdale QC, in the week of his retirement as Recorder of Manchester, was interviewed by the Manchester Evening News, reminding the city’s population that we were still here and still effective. As panic buying gripped the nation civil unrest seemed possible. Many readers recalled the grim task of his predecessor HHJ Gilbart QC presiding over the hundreds of sentence hearings following the looting and riots in 2011, and pondered whether such days would return. The courts would have a role to play in reminding the populace that criminal justice was still operational.
The message the public in mid-March was that trials had to continue, both those of national importance – the murder of a Police officer in London, the Arena bomb trial, and, over the border, the trial of a former Scottish first minister – and those of more localised significance. Juries across the circuit continued to consider thefts, burglaries, assaults as panic mounted. They did their duty to the complainants and defendants brought before them. Cracks began to appear. Jurors, following governmental advice, began to self-isolate as did witnesses, defendants, judges, but very rarely, it should be said, advocates.
The situation placed huge pressure on all parties to soldier on. Some finished – Abedi convicted, Salmond acquitted – and others didn’t. Counsel at Minshull Street were informed that, thirteen weeks into a trial on Conspiracy to Cause Explosions, and over a week into the jury’s deliberations, their trial would have to end unfinished and begin again from scratch in 2021.
By the end of the month the jury corridors had fallen silent. Trials, initially curtailed to three days, were now postponed indefinitely. The court lists were not empty however: they continued to be heard with a judge and clerk in the courtroom and other parties – counsel, defendants in custody and even court reporters – attending remotely.
A year ago, a month ago, such a concept would have been wholly unforeseeable. These are changed days.
So how is it working? Many of you may be feeling cut off, either on furlough or at home reliant upon scraps of information from social media, lengthy (and at times short-lived) judicial protocols and reconnaissance from the odd advocate.
Our team of barristers has adapted quickly to the changes. We all continue to attend court remotely. For us, absent the commute, it really can be business as usual. The summation of our experience at the online coalface every day will, we hope, assist you all, wherever you may be, as to how the Crown Court is operating as of Easter Weekend 2020.
Following initial experimentation with conference call technology (advocates appearing from home by telephone) the courts moved rapidly on to video calls. As the nation began to call its respective Nan on HouseParty, HMCTS proposed Skype For Business as the new venue for robing room chats, Prison Video Link (PVL) client conferences and even hearings themselves.
Within days a skeleton court staff had liaised, innovated and quite simply grafted to put together a system which could replicate that which had gone before. The best example was “The Norwich solution” to allow a defendant on PVL to see and be seen – a court laptop placed in front of the PVL screen, upon which those in custody could see their advocate and those ranged alongside and against her. Staff at that East Anglian courthouse are to be thanked for their ingenuity with lengths of HDMI cable.
Manchester Crown Square took April 1st “out” to test and prepare systems for virtual hearings. From then on advocates were being given a hearing time and a link to a Skype meeting, distributed by court staff the night before the hearing, either by CJSM secure email or as a note on the Crown Court Digital Case System (DCS). Like the DCS, and perhaps because we were comfortable with working online since the introduction of DCS, it worked!
Advocates now join a Skype meeting a little before their allotted time. They are swiftly joined by all others in the case, all suited and appearing from studies, bedrooms, conservatories and flats across the North West. The clerk, in court, will join the meeting, his camera off but his microphone on. He will check all are present, and ask if we have had time to discuss all matters prior to the judge joining the meeting. Some judges perform this function themselves, joining from their chambers to check all are ready.
Then the hearing: at the outset the judge, on camera in court, robed, sets out the fact that this a virtual hearing, outlining which of the Coronavirus Regulations are engaged by this (see a future blog on the new Act) and establishing that all parties can see and hear each other.
The defendants (in custody only, pending an on bail solution) appear by PVL, their image is relayed from the screen in court and then on to Skype (via “the Norwich solution”, but work is ongoing to integrate Skype and PVL more cleanly). All advocates appear from home, in “dress appropriate to attend court”.
Teething problems with audio feedback, the placing of microphones and “muting protocol” are being ironed out, perhaps because simultaneously in our home lives we are video calling more and more, becoming as familiar with the technology as we became with Google Maps or WhatsApp.
We at 18SJS have been collating data on our experiences with virtual hearings since the Do Not Go To Court directive on March 24th.
Week One was characterised by multiple solutions being attempted, the natural consequence of a “make do and mend” approach and the courts being swamped with the work of vacating hundreds of trials.
Week Two, following the April Fool’s Day hiatus, shows both the mastering of the basic mention and vacation hearings that had struggled in Week One, and evidence of issues as more complex matters were attempted. Our barristers attended twenty-two virtual hearings in five days. There are clear success stories, including effective re-arraignments, pleas and sentences, hearings involving as many as nine parties, and hearings lasting all day.
This experience appears to be shared across the country – the national media is once again reporting on crime. On April 8th, Maurice Robinson pleaded Guilty at the Old Bailey to the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese immigrants in a truck trailer in Essex, the BBC noting that “both men appeared via video-link at the hearing, which was conducted virtually with most lawyers and court reporters attending by Skype.”
Our wigs and gowns may lie unused, but for us at 18 St John Street, and for the nation’s Crown Courts as a whole, we are rapidly moving back towards “business as usual.”
Andy Evans and Verity Quaite