Sir Simon Picken, Presiding Judge of the Circuit in Wales, explains to Hannah Watkin how Welsh courts have risen to the challenges presented by the pandemic.
In mid-2020, individuals including the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd shared concerns about how the pandemic was causing an increase in the backlog of cases still to be heard in English and Welsh courts.
Nine months on, the situation surrounding these backlogs has changed significantly for the better.
Mr Justice Picken, what methods have been employed to hold hearings, both virtually and in-person, in order to catch up with case backlog?
It has now been a full year since the start of the pandemic. Judges, Magistrates, court staff and indeed very many across the justice system have worked tirelessly to keep the wheels of justice in Wales turning. All have adapted with speed and determination, rolling out new technology and managing to keep courts open and functioning with new measures to support COVID safety.
In all jurisdictions, judges have used technology to allow people to attend cases remotely if that is both practicable and, importantly, also in the interests of justice. Court work has had to carry on.
Not simply urgent work in the sense of time-critical work, but other types of work as well, as we were conscious even back in the spring of 2020 that if COVID went on for any length of time—as alas, it has—the accumulating backlogs would be extremely challenging.
“Cardiff Crown Court was among the first of three court centres to restart jury trials… Wales was the first area to have all centres open and operational for jury trials.”
The courts have made use of a Cloud Video Platform (CVP), a new video technology that supports remote hearings in the criminal courts. A secure system that can be accessed by a wide range of devices, it has proved invaluable over the past year.
As the technology has improved, more judges have been able to operate from court, more people have been able to attend court and things have gently got better.
In what way has Wales led the way in introducing COVID safe methods of holding trials?
Not just Criminal, but Civil, Family and Tribunals business across Wales has been undertaken. This is because all concerned have been extremely flexible and responsive to the changing circumstances.
Cardiff Crown Court was among the first of three court centres to restart jury trials – alongside the Central Criminal Court in London (the Old Bailey) and Bristol Crown Court. Wales was the first area to have all centres open and operational for jury trials.
Tribunals in Wales led on the rollout of the CVP in employment tribunals and immigration and asylum chamber tribunals, creating guidance to be used throughout the UK.
What is the position in the Crown Courts in Wales?
At present, no cases within Wales are at risk of exceeding statutory custody time limits. All Crown Court centres in Wales are now hearing jury trials; this has been the case since last summer.
“The average waiting time for a trial was eight weeks pre-pandemic. The average waiting time now for a trial is 10 weeks.”
Cardiff Crown Court piloted temporary ‘COVID operating hours’ for a four-week period last October to test a split court operation. The opening of the Nightingale Court in Swansea has provided a sizeable extra court room that is used for jury trials in non-custodial crime work. This was fully utilised and operational from 17 August 2020.
There has also been additional capacity provided in Cardiff City Hall to accommodate up to 70 jurors a day, thereby enabling safer management of footfall in the main building and facilitating additional jury trial courts.
The CVP is being used extensively across all criminal courts in Wales, whilst installation of plexiglass screens in courtrooms across Wales has enabled 17 out of the 22 courtrooms in Wales to be designated as COVID secure for hosting jury trials. These screens are in the docks, in the jury boxes and in the rows used by advocates.
Extensions to secure docks (that is the area where the defendant sits) in Newport, Caernarfon, and works planned for Swansea have allowed multi-handed trials to be heard across Wales.
I myself have just completed a 7-handed murder trial in Newport which had to be abandoned in March last year because of COVID and which lasted 10 weeks.
My co-presider, Mrs Justice Jefford, is now presiding over a three-defendant murder trial in the same court and, after that, there will follow a 14-week 9-defendant drugs case again in the same court.
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And what is the position in the Magistrates’ Courts in Wales?
Similarly, since 1 August 2020, Magistrates’ Courts across Wales have heard thousands of cases through sitting additional courts in many courthouses and undertaking additional Saturday sittings in Cardiff and Mold. There is no COVID-related backlog in Wales in the Magistrates Courts.
Magistrates’ courts recovery across Wales has been an exceptional success and is largely back to pre-Covid levels.
The average waiting time for a trial was eight weeks pre-pandemic. The average waiting time now for a trial is 10 weeks.
Around 130 trials per week are being listed, which is broadly in line with the number finalised pre-pandemic. Domestic Abuse, Youth and Covid offences are being prioritised and there are no delays in listing or hearing these cases.
What about the Family Courts?
The position is also good. Relatively few hearings were lost as the majority were moved to digital platforms or conducted over the telephone, and since June additional courts have been scheduled in order to maintain the throughput of work.
Wales’ performance has remained the best across HMCTS with Public Law average waiting times from issue of proceedings to disposal at 31 weeks against the national average of 39 weeks.
How about the Civil Courts and the Tribunals?
Early into the pandemic, work priorities were set to manage staff and judicial time. This did result in the postponement of many Small Claims cases. However, the courts are now, so far as possible, listing normally again.
We have been aided by low receipts (25 – 30% reduction) and high settlement rates meaning that we continue to outperform the national picture in all measures across all Tracks.
“It may well be, therefore, that some hearings of a procedural type will continue to be heard remotely.”
As previously mentioned, Tribunals in Wales led on the rollout of the CVP. Plexiglass screens were purchased for identified Tribunal, as well as Civil and Family sites, to enable larger cases to be heard face to face, or as a hybrid of the two means.
Social Security and Child Support tribunals only lost two days of hearings at the outbreak of the pandemic before being converted to telephone hearings so that appellants could still gain access to justice.
The Newport Immigration and Asylum Tribunal continues to sit to judicial capacity and assist English centres by taking work from them and thereby reducing overall national backlog.
As we proceed further into 2021 our path out of the pandemic appears clearer, but remains uncertain. The staff of the justice system in England and Wales have evidently worked very hard to cope with the problems brought about by the pandemic and have achieved much success through their hard work.
Does this suggest that whatever the future brings, the justice system will continue to be ready to adapt?
In a word, yes. It seems likely that we will wish, post-pandemic, to deploy aspects of what we have done over the past year. It may well be, therefore, that some hearings of a procedural type will continue to be heard remotely. However, I am confident that we will return to face-to-face hearings in the main.
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