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Justice Week 2021: Covid and the Courts, an interview with His Honour Judge Burgess

For Justice Week 2021, we interviewed His Honour Judge John Burgess from Nottingham’s Crown Court Service about the impact of COVID-19 on legal proceedings in Nottingham. You can read the conversation in full here.

Covid-19 and English Courts: An interview with His Honour Judge John Burgess

How easy has it been for people to access the justice system throughout the Covid-19 pandemic?

“Whilst courts have remained open, different courts have had to operate in different ways. For example, civil courts and county courts have moved to remote hearings, whereas crown courts have continued to hold in-house hearings. This is because crown courts use a jury and managing jurors remotely would have been far too complex for court officials. Additionally, in criminal cases, defendants (the person standing accused) need to be present.

It’s been tricky, but the courts have done much to keeping everyone safe. Here are some examples of measures in place at Nottingham’s crown court:

  • The witness stand is disinfected after each use.
  • Perspex screens have been fitted throughout the courts.
  • Jurors remain a 2-metre distance from each other.
  • Court officials remain a 2-metre distance from each other.
  • We’ve removed counsel rows and rearranged the layout to make social distancing easier.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but as you can see, we take the safety of court staff, visitors and all those in attendance very seriously.

Although crown courts remain open for trials, some of the work is done remotely, which isn’t always easy. 2 dimensional contact is not as good as in-person contact because you can’t read a person’s body language, nor can you intervene as easily if necessary.”

Have trials slowed down since Covid-19?

“A little bit, yes. This is mainly because jurors come in separately now as opposed to entering as one large group, so getting everyone in slows things down somewhat.”

In ‘normal’ times, any member of the public over the age of 14 can sit in on a trial. Has this stopped at the moment?

“Yes, courts are running on a reduced capacity at the moment, and our priority is to reserve space for people who are invested in the trial. This might include family members of the defendant, or family of the victim (if there is one). If there’s not enough space, we do have an overspill court which we can use. The trial is then live-streamed into that court. Our building wasn’t created with this in mind, so we’ve had a few minor teething problems along the way, but it’s been worth it. We want all trials to remain as accessible as possible to those who need/want to attend.”

In your view, has the pandemic affected the public’s trust in the law, the justice system and by extension, the government?

“I don’t have a view on this from a judicial standpoint, but as a member of the public, I understand the desire to get life back to normal and sympathise with the frustrations many have felt. It’s been difficult, but sometimes we need to sacrifice things for the greater good.”

And finally, mental health has been a hot topic recently. How are the courts continuing to support people throughout the pandemic?

“Witness support services remain open to anyone who needs to use them, and we take the welfare of court attendees very seriously. Unfortunately, there have been delays in the system for a while (even before the pandemic) which have resulted in slower processes. Court dates have been moved on occasion, which can cause anxiety for witnesses, defendants and their families, but we do what we can to support them.”

About Justice Week

Justice Week runs from March 1-5 and exists in order to improve the ability of the public to access justice. It has the following specific objectives:

  • build public support and understanding for the rule of law and justice
  • increase public understanding of the role of government in the justice system
  • identify and secure support for actions which could improve justice

To find out more, click here.

Are you interested in a career in law? You might like this interview, ‘In conversation with…Judge Burgess’ from 2019. Watch here.

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