COVID-19 has resulted in severe court backlog which could last several years
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, remote hearings in England and Wales were few and far between and the vast majority of hearings (whether civil, criminal or family) were heard face-to-face in court rooms up and down the country. This was the case whether the court was dealing with a short 10 minute possession claim, a 30 minute procedural hearing, or a complicated trial lasting several weeks.
In late March, the introduction of “lockdown” and quick turn of events meant that many court hearings were adjourned at the last minute. Further, as a result of the Coronavirus Act 2020 and new Practice Direction 51Z of the Civil Procedure rules, new and ongoing possession claims were all stayed (i.e. paused) for an initial period of three months. In the weeks that followed, the courts (and court users) worked hard to restructure the way that hearings operate, and hundreds of hearings have now taken place (successfully) using remote platforms such as Skype for Business.
Whilst there are many benefits to remote hearings, there are also many challenges, and court listing officers have faced many challenges in dealing with hearing listings efficiently. By way of an example (for those who may not be familiar with the way hearings are listed), in “normal” times, it is quite usual for 10 cases to be listed before the same judge at the same time and the judge will then prioritise and deal with the cases in quick succession. This simply isn’t possible when dealing with matters remotely, which means that cases are inevitably being dealt with more slowly resulting in delays. Technical issues and getting to grips with electronic hearing bundles can also slow matters down.
As a result, the courts now face a huge backlog including (i) cases that were adjourned in the immediate aftermath of “lockdown” being introduced, (ii) possession hearings that have been adjourned in the three month period or claims that are waiting to be issued, (iii) cases that are not appropriate for remote hearings and (iv) cases that have been inevitably delayed by the challenges faced by the listing office.
The Law Society Gazette has reported that it is estimated that the Government will need to spend as much as an additional £220m over two years to clear the backlog detailed above, and that parties will suffer by the inevitable delays in the meantime.
It remains to be seen whether remote hearings will be a permanent change for the English Courts, or whether (and how) we will revert to default face-to-face hearings when things settle.
If you’d like any further information or help with any issues you are facing, please get in touch with Holly Baker or call 01582 514000