We are in unprecedented times as we face the challenge of the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The government appears to have adopted a strategy, in that certainly as far as the courts are concerned, we carry on with business as usual until advised otherwise.
Consequently, we have been liasing with, the Bar Council, CPS, MOJ, the courts and the senior judiciary as to the best way in which we can approach this problem. We need to be constructive and measured, but our priority is the safety of our members.
While we cannot predict the future, we wanted to let you know that we are seeking to ensure that your health and safety is our priority.
The situation is presenting us all with new challenges. We of course, go to court or prisons because it is part of our job. Those members of the public who attend court such as witnesses or jurors do not necessarily want to be there and consequently given the situation we are in, they may either not attend or find themselves unable to continue part way through; the classic example being a trial. Please be mindful of defendants attending with symptoms or indeed other court users. Remember, not everyone is as well informed as you.
In addition, we know that there already instances where defendants do not wish to engage with counsel and so instructions cannot be taken. The permutations are endless, but the number one priority for us and for you is your health and safety whilst attending court or engaging with members of the public.
Please have in mind at all times the advice of local government officials and health authorities. Do not compromise your health.
If at any stage you are not in a position or feel that that you cannot perform your job, you must follow the guidelines about self -isolation or other timely advice that will be published.
For any practicing barrister who has to take any step to ensure that their health is a priority and this results in hearings not being concluded that is one of the consequences of trying to keep going. There may be some of you who do indeed have to make that decision or find yourselves in situations where the decision is made for you. What- ever be the scenario, do not compromise your health. We will support you in those decisions, decisions, that we know that you will not have taken lightly.
A practical consequence of much of this is that some of you may have to have trials taken out, where there is no replacement barrister for you or your trials finish midway through or should it happen the courts are not sitting. We are seeking to engage with the CPS, LAA and MOJ as to the listing of these cases and how fees can be paid.
HEARINGS BY PHONE AND VIDEO:
We anticipate that we will see an expansion of the use of audio and video hearings whilst we work at home. Emergency measures may include such a reality.
Trials which have to be vacated and require a new fixed date do not require attendance at court. We are going to invite a positive initiative, where these hearings are conducted by phone. Judges, barristers, clerks and listing can, because of technology make this work. In circumstances where health comes first, the administration of the courts can be flexible. The business of relisting can be done in this way without compromising health or the efficient future running of the courts.
LOOSENING THE PURSE STRINGS:
Further, because we do not know what the future holds, we are going to invite both the CPS and the LAA to take what would not only be an unprecedented step but would be a welcome gesture by allowing counsel to bill for work done. This is a crisis and in simple terms cashflow is vital. We will be asking LAA for a number of measures including being creative as to how they can help us through this really worrying time.
In the interim if you have any billing that can be done now, do it as soon as possible.
We recognise that advances in payment is both a complex and frankly time consuming ask but it will be a lifeline for so many practitioners. We must be able to submit bills where hearings have been conducted. We cannot sit and wait for a trial to be concluded in the way that we do presently and given that the predictions are that this is going to go on for sometime, the backlog will no doubt become acute and so we will need timely payments.
We will keep you updated on this but it is at the forefront of our minds.
What ever situation you are presented with, do not panic. Remain measured, remain cool and be objective but above all please stay safe.
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