Pressure is growing on the Ministry of Justice to limit criminal court hearings to urgent cases only as restrictions on social gatherings and movement become tougher.
Lawyers, jurors, witnesses and defendants are still required to attend court, although the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has postponed trials due to last longer than three days and called for video links to be used where possible.
As the government has closed pubs and restaurants and recommended social distancing in public spaces, normal routines in courthouses appear increasingly out of step.
Rhona Friedman, a criminal solicitor and a committee member of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, told the Guardian: “I saw a young man brought into the dock at Croydon magistrates court on Saturday coughing up phlegm into a tissue in the dock. The security staff realised they shouldn’t be sitting right next to him and retreated as far as they could, which wasn’t very far.
“He had been to hospital the night before but hadn’t been given a test, I guess because he wasn’t admitted and was returned to police detention. He didn’t get bail and was sent to prison.”
She added: “On one occasion last week I was told there were 30 people in the cells in Highbury magistrates court. It’s all completely contrary to government and NHS advice.
“The government should be stopping appearances in person in all nonurgent cases. This is putting people’s lives at risk, particularly in the prison system.”
Young Legal Aid Lawyers, which supports professionals taking legal aid cases, called on the government to “immediately cease all in-person court hearings and ensure access to justice through telephone and video hearings”.
A spokesperson for the Criminal Bar Association said: “Criminal barristers and solicitors are doing their utmost to fulfil their duty as officers of the court to complete trials that are under way; however, it may be inevitable that events will overtake the whole of the criminal justice system if sufficient numbers of jurors and witnesses have to self-isolate.”
A spokesman for Burnett said: “The lord chief justice and the senior judiciary have been balancing the need for justice to continue with the need to keep people safe.
“As the pandemic has quickly developed over recent days, they will continue to review advice as the situation changes. As the advice to judges on the judiciary website makes clear, judges are being told to be flexible and innovative with technology of all kinds.”
A spokesperson for HM Courts and Tribunals Service said: “We are minimising the risk to everyone in our courts by stopping nonurgent work and increasing telephone and online hearings. The situation is under constant review and we are hugely grateful to all those working hard to keep our justice system running.”
The statement did not explain what cases were deemed to be “nonurgent” and implied that criminal cases, which are still going ahead, were therefore all deemed to be urgent.
Housing lawyers and the charity Shelter have called for thousands of home repossession cases heard in county courts to be postponed until after the crisis.
People in danger of losing their houses and flats are still being summoned in block bookings to sit together in courts waiting for judges to decide on claims, despite the prime minister’s promise that renters and mortgage borrowers would be protected from eviction.
The housing ministry has said no new repossession cases should start during the crisis but existing ones are continuing. In some courts, judges have ordered that hearings should be postponed for several months.
A judge in Exeter published a notice last week saying cases would be put back until June “upon noting the declared intention of the government to pass emergency legislation to prevent the evictions of renters” and to provide borrowers with mortgage holidays.
At Brentford county court in west London, a list of cases was summoned to court last Friday. One of the respondents was pregnant, another had a serious health condition and others wore face masks because they said they had symptoms of flu-like illness, lawyers present reported. All had turned up to try to prevent their homes from being taken. Despite a request to postpone proceedings, some went ahead.
Renata Burns, a solicitor with Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre, who was at Brentford on Friday, said: “There was no reason why these hearings could not have been [postponed]. It meant people were all cramped together in courthouse rooms.”
Sue James, the director of Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre and an expert on housing law, said: “The way that possession cases are listed – in blocks of time – puts all parties at risk. You soon build up to having 20 or 30 people in the waiting area. That makes for a lot of people in a confined space.
“The lord chief justice has advised that it is now inappropriate to continue to list cases in this way. Yet they are still continuing in some courts.
“It makes no sense for the possession cases and evictions to continue – and it is against government guidance to evict tenants and mortgagees. It is time there was a clear direction in these cases.”
Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, said: “[Last] week the government committed to ban new evictions for three months, which will have come as a huge relief for many renters worried about losing their home as a result of this crisis.
“At Shelter we’re hearing from terrified renters being threatened with eviction, and we’re still seeing cases moving through the courts, so we hope to see the legislation come forward soon to ensure that all evictions are halted and everyone is safe in their homes.”
The Ministry of Justice said housing cases were a matter for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The MHCLG has said there should be “no new possession proceedings through applications to the court to start during the crisis”.