Almost daily, announcements are being made on how European courts are responding to the coronavirus.

On Thursday, for example, the Presidents of the Employment Tribunals in England and Wales and Scotland announced that “in view of the rapidly changing circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic,” they have directed that from March 23, “all in-person hearings—where parties are expected to be in attendance at a tribunal hearing center—will be converted to a case management hearing by telephone or other electronic means which will take place (unless parties are advised otherwise) on the first day allocated for the hearing.”

The move, they said, will “provide an opportunity to discuss how best to proceed” following release of the five-page Presidential Guidance by the Tribunals Judiciary issued Wednesday, “unless in the individual case the president, a regional employment judge or the vice president directs otherwise. If the case is set down for more than one day then parties should proceed on the basis that the remainder of the days fixed have been cancelled.”

The Presidents of the Employment Tribunals added that this direction also applies to any hearing that is already in progress on March 23 “and, if not already addressed before then, the parties may assume that the hearing on that day is converted to a case management hearing of the kind referred to above. The parties remain free to make any application to the Tribunal at any time.”

Crown Court announcement

On Tuesday, the Crown Court announced that it will not start any new trials across England and Wales that could last longer than three days, and that all cases expecting to last longer than three days that were planned to start before the end of April will be adjourned. That announcement made by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, stated, “The impact of the public health emergency on the operation of the courts has been under constant review. In all jurisdictions, steps are being taken to enable as many hearings as possible to be conducted with some or all of the participants attending by telephone, video-link or online.”

Regarding cases that are expected to last longer than three days, “these cases will be kept under review and the position regarding short trials will be revisited as circumstances develop and, in any event, next week,” Lord Burnett of Maldon said. “As events unfold, decisions will be taken in respect of all cases awaiting trial in the Crown Court. Trials currently underway will generally proceed in the hope that they can be completed.”

The announcements followed several pleas for the courts to halt their business-as-usual stance amid the coronavirus pandemic. In just one example, Amanda Pinto, Chair of the Bar Council, issued on Tuesday the following statement: “We are calling for the Ministry of Justice to put an urgent halt to jury trials for the time being. Barristers up and down the country are telling us that jurors are having to drop out of cases because they are self-isolating or, worse, coming to court when they should not, and, thereby, putting everyone’s health at risk.”

The statement continued: “Being in a jury trial should not be a game of ‘Russian Roulette’ with the participants’ health. All those involved in court proceedings—be they barristers, witnesses, defendants, jurors or members of the public (let alone court staff and judges)—should not be expected to attend court, whilst the rest of the country is very strongly urged to work from home and to avoid ‘non-essential contact’ and ‘confined spaces.’

“The Bar Council believes that it is vital that the justice system functions as far as possible but putting people’s health—and in some cases lives—at risk in our courts when this is avoidable, must stop immediately.”