04:17, May 01 147 0 theguardian.com

2020-05-01 04:17:05
Labour: livestream court cases during and after Covid-19 crisis

Online streaming of public court cases should become the norm during and after lockdown to create a more transparent and fair justice system, Labour has said.

David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, and Charles Falconer, the shadow attorney general, have written to the government calling for an emergency action plan to restart the “incapacitated” justice system and for longer term changes.

The letter to the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, proposes improvements to address “systematic and historic failings” that have left courts “critically weakened long before the coronavirus crisis began”. It says many victims and defendants are “being left in limbo as trials are being postponed indefinitely”.

During the pandemic, Labour’s justice team says, courts and tribunals should use social distancing and all court cases – with the exception of certain criminal, family and youth cases – should be streamed online and accessible to all. That should continue after the Covid-19 crisis.

The letter also advocates investing in early advice services and legal aid to expand access to justice as well as greater financial support to ensure “barristers and solicitors’ firms can survive the crisis”.

All jury trials and many non-urgent cases have been suspended during the lockdown but most of the higher civil courts – the supreme court, court of appeal, high court and family court – are conducting remote hearings via video links. The media, but not the public, are being given online access.

The supreme court already livestreams its hearings; some court of appeal hearings are also broadcast live. Earlier this year the Ministry of Justice backed expanding camera use in court so that judges sentencing convicted offenders in high-profile criminal cases in England and Wales, including murders, rapes and other serious offences, can be televised.

Lammy said: “There were already huge backlogs in court cases before the Covid-19 crisis began. If urgent decisions are not made now, the justice system will be at breaking point by the autumn.

“Many large court rooms, university lecture halls, schools and leisure centres are currently sitting empty. The Ministry of Justice should co-opt these buildings if necessary to carry out socially distanced trials according to public health advice. Justice delayed must not be allowed to become justice denied.”

He said open justice was a fundamental right but current restrictions on non-essential travel meant most members of the public could not attend court.

“To maintain public confidence in the justice system, with a few exceptions, all court cases should be streamed online.

“Labour is calling for the livestreaming of cases to become the norm during and after the Covid-19 crisis because a more transparent system is a fairer system, which gives greater access to justice for us all.”

The letter says the opposition wants to work constructively with the government, but “we have serious concerns regarding not only how the justice system has become incapacitated by the crisis, but also around how our critically weakened infrastructure will cope with the enormous challenge it will face post Covid-19”.

A first priority must be rebuilding services and restoring some of the legal aid which since 2012 has been stripped from most areas of early legal advice, including housing, family matters, employment, welfare and immigration.

To continue the suspension of trials for an “indeterminate time would result in a backlog of cases which could seize [up] the wheels of justice for many years to come. The government must act urgently to allow jury trials to restart in a way that is safe.”

However, Labour does not support proposals for allowing jurors to participate remotely in trials from their home. “Unfortunately, many people across the country do not have [quiet or private rooms] or access to the required technology. Until comprehensive solutions are found to prevent remote juries from becoming socially unbalanced juries, we cannot support them.”

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