Physically-distanced layouts, staggered times, and distinct case-type subsets, are all part of the courts’ reopening strategy.
Chief Justice Frank Clarke has said that more virtual courts and the extended use of safe physical courts, with organised physical distancing, will allow for an increased caseload in the coming weeks.
In April 2020, there were 5,080 video conference calls between courts and prisons, representing an increase of 400% on the previous year.
Using existing resources, 47 courts have been held remotely (virtual courts).
Most of these were in the appellate courts, in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, which dealt with call-over lists, case-management hearings, and criminal and civil hearings in this manner. Many of the virtual sittings dealt with several or more matters.
The chief justice pointed out that the Courts Service has, for some time, been working on a range of both physical and organisational measures to enable a significant increase in physical hearings.
He added that these measures may well be in play until the second half of 2021. This will not, however, allow a throughput of cases on the same scale that operated prior to coronavirus restrictions being put in place.
Therefore, it remains unrealistic to anticipate that all courtrooms in all courthouses will be able to operate at the level that existed prior to the crisis, the chief justice said.
“Even if additional suitable venues can be identified, there will still be significant limitations. It is for that reason that the use of remote hearings, in those cases for which they are suitable, must remain an important part of the medium-term solution,” he said.
Courts Service Chief Executive Angela Denning said that court presidents and Courts Service staff were working in a “cautious, conservative, safe and innovative way, to allow access to justice, whilst also maintaining social distance and safety".
"The service has fitted out a prototype courtroom in Naas, designed to address safety concerns and social-distancing requirements,” the chief executive explained.
“Screens will be provided for judges, staff and witnesses, along with floor markings, two-metre distancing signage, etc. These measures are already in some courtrooms," Ms Denning said.
The Courts Service last week appointed a full-time health-and-safety officer to review the proposed measures for compliance.