Courts and tribunals in Northern Ireland will continue to operate during the two week circuit break lockdown as they have been in recent months, Justice Minister Naomi Long has confirmed.
As Northern Ireland prepares for more stringent restrictions over the next two weeks from tomorrow, Friday November 27, the Minister reiterated that courts and tribunals staff, the judiciary and the legal profession are among those professions regarded as providing an essential service.
Reminding members of the public that while the bulk of hearings would still be conducted remotely, in-person hearings would be held if directed by a judge, Naomi Long said:
“The position in recent months has been that most hearings in the criminal, family and civil courts and tribunals have been conducted remotely using technology such as Sightlink unless a judge or panel chairperson directs otherwise.
“That remains the situation during the circuit break.
“Jury trials have been able to resume safely in six court venues since August – in Laganside, Antrim, Newry, Craigavon, Dungannon and Coleraine – with appropriate Covid protections for jurors, judges, lawyers, plaintiffs, defendants and other court users.
“Those protection measures include the use of separate courtrooms for jury panels and jury consultations, the reconfiguring of courtrooms to allow for social distancing, the installation of glass and Perspex screens in courts and tribunal hearing rooms, the increased use of technology, the installation of hand gel dispensers throughout the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service’s estate, the wearing of face coverings in public areas and the erection of signage about social distancing.
“We ask members of the public involved in court and tribunal proceedings to check in advance with their legal representatives or court and tribunal offices if they are required to appear in person and to only attend in person, if required.
“Members of the public and legal representatives who are required to appear are also urged to work closely with courts and tribunals staff and with security personnel to ensure social distancing guidelines are followed and to continue to observe other measures designed to reduce the possibility of Covid-19 infection such as using hand gels and wearing face coverings, unless directed by a judge or panel member to remove them.”
The Minister again paid tribute to all Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service staff, the judiciary, legal professionals, security and other justice partners for ensuring that courts and tribunals continued to function throughout the Covid-19 pandemic though remote, in-person or hybrid hearings.
Naomi Long said: “A colossal effort went in to ensuring justice did not grind to a halt when lockdown occurred earlier this year and also in subsequent months to ensure that in-person hearings could take place safely.
“Courts and tribunals staff, judges, legal representatives, security and other support staff, police, prisons and probation staff have all had to adjust very quickly to new ways of working and in recent months significant inroads have been made into addressing the backlogs that built up in court and tribunals cases.
“A lot of that work has not always been visible to the general public but I would like to put on record my appreciation to all those who have delivered these important services in extraordinary circumstances.”
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