HHJ Gosnell has issued new guidance for civil courts in North and West Yorkshire
The purpose of this document is to update you on events since my last update on 6th April 2020. Amended Civil Listing Priorities in the County Court – Covid-19 was published on 14th May 2020. It can be found on the judiciary.uk website. This sets out the priority work which must be done and other work which should be done. It also deals with how Judges should decide whether to conduct a hearing or trial remotely or with a physical hearing in a court building (which I will call “face to face” hearings). In the light of the currently improving national picture and anticipating further gradual relaxation of the “lockdown” provisions I have decided that we will start listing certain trials for hearing on a face to face basis from 8th June 2020.
Face to Face trials
The first consideration before listing a face to face trial is the safety of court users, lawyers, court staff and judiciary. The Recorder of Leeds has recently re-introduced face to face hearings for some categories of criminal cases and a considerable amount of preparation went into ensuring that they could be conducted safely with appropriate social distancing for all. Details of the precautions taken are set out in his written guidance dated 7th May 2020. HMCTS have carried out an Organisational Covid-19 Risk Assessment and there is a link to this and the assessment tool for Local Risk Assessments on the HMCTS website. The Local Risk Assessment for the Combined Court Centre in Leeds will be completed today.
From 8th June 2020 we plan to list one face to face court per day and anticipate that will increase to two courts per day by 15th June 2020. The position will be reviewed on 29th June 2020 in the light of both the national picture and local experience. Not all trials will be suitable for a face to face hearing given the essential need to maintain social distancing throughout. The capacity of the courtrooms in the Combined Court Centre ranges between 6-9 people not including the Judge and clerk. It will therefore be necessary to assess each potential trial by enquiring from the lawyers or parties involved how many people are likely to be needed in the courtroom. It may be possible to leave some witnesses outside until they are needed to give evidence or have “hybrid” hearings where some of the witnesses are dealt with remotely where this is technically possible.
We are obviously limited in terms of capacity by the number of courtrooms we can safely run by issues such as footfall in common areas and waiting room space. This may well mean that difficult decisions may have to be taken to decide which trials are listed and which trials are either adjourned or offered a remote hearing which should still be possible in most cases.
The start times of hearings and lunch breaks may well be staggered to reduce pedestrian traffic. There are Marshalls throughout the building directing pedestrian traffic and ensuring that proper social distancing is maintained. The toilets are open but will be supervised to ensure only one person uses them at any time. The robing room is closed so counsel and solicitors are not expected to robe for any hearing. Business suits is appropriate dress. The conference rooms have been closed as they are too small to be consistent with social distancing. We intend to open at least one adjacent courtroom as an additional waiting or conference area in addition to the waiting area on the ground floor. This is not ideal, however, and lawyers may wish to ensure they have had a remote conference with their client before attending court. Seats in court may be marked or cordoned off. Please obey the signage and instructions from the court clerk. Hand sanitiser will be provided, and cleaning arrangements have been upgraded. Entrance to the building may take a little longer than usual and so it may be wise to allow time for this.
Trials by remote means will continue to take place either by Skype for Business or BTMeetMe. We recognise that many trials will not be suitable to be dealt with currently by a face to face hearing because of witnesses with vulnerable health conditions or those who do not live within convenient travelling time to court. Where safety considerations mean that a trial cannot be conducted safely a remote hearing will be offered and if this is not suitable then the trial will have to be adjourned until it is safe to conduct it. It may be possible to request a short remote hearing before the trial Judge to consider the various options and decide which mode of trial is safest and fairest.
It is likely that all interim hearings and any hearings not involving the giving of live witness evidence will be conducted by remote means for the foreseeable future. Whilst we all find the transition to remote hearings challenging it seems to be working well using a combination of BTMeetMe or Skype for Business. We have learnt that it is not possible to list as many cases per day as we used to and that remote hearings seem more tiring both for the Judge and advocates / parties.
Currently Leeds is the only open court and all other courts on the cluster are staffed or suspended. HMCTS are planning to convert the staffed courts to open courts over the next couple of months but this process will take some time. It may take a little longer to re-open suspended courts. Once those courts are open again it may be possible to conduct face to face hearings there, but this will depend on the layout of the court building and the result of any Local Risk Assessment. This is all of course dependent on the national picture and government Covid-19 guidance.
I am acutely conscious that I have already given conflicting advice in my two previous guidance documents. Some very recent guidance has been published on the judiciary.uk section of the HMCTS website from Mr Justice Mann entitled “General Guidance on PDF Bundles” which I would commend. Do not forget to include the bundle index in the numbered pages otherwise the page number in the PDF file and the number you have allocated to the document will not match. There is a maximum size for attached files (in aggregate) to be sent to justice.uk address of 36Mb. If the ebundle is bigger than that you can always ask if you can send it direct to the Judge where the limit is 150Mb.
I am conscious that we are not delivering the service we used to deliver before the Covid-19 outbreak. I think there is a growing understanding among court users that the Court Staff and Judiciary are doing their best in unprecedented times. I personally have found lawyers being compassionate and understanding about difficulties which arise either with the court or their opponents and an increased level of co-operation all round to “get things done” as our Prime Minister might say. Let’s try and continue these good habits over the next few weeks and months whilst we deal with the inevitable further challenges that will arise.
His Honour Judge Mark Gosnell
Designated Civil Judge for North and West Yorkshire”