In an update today, (11 July), the chief justice said courts across the country were involved in detailed planning to increase cases of all types, with many to be heard in the summer months of August and September.
The presidents of each court and the chief executive of the Courts Service are to give further details over the next two weeks. A separate statement will be issued on criminal jury trials.
Judge Clarke said the number of sittings in all courts had increased recently as COVID-19 restrictions had been loosened, but the level of business remained “significantly below” normal.
He said plans to increase court sittings would depend on the Courts Service being able to source additional premises and provide the technology for a greater use of remote hearings when suitable.
The chief justice stressed that there was a need to limit the numbers present in individual courtrooms. He said this was relatively straightforward, but could potentially create safety issues for the remainder of the courthouse.
“This leads to the need for limits to be put on the number of courtrooms which can be simultaneously in use and also on the number of cases which can be listed for hearing at the same time,” he said.
Chief Justice Clarke also warned that changed work practices were the price everyone would have to pay for the courts to be able to increase their caseload safely, citing the need for staggered times for all types of court hearing.
The chief justice said the District Court, which has been dealing with urgent matters, now intends to return to as near a full service as possible from 1 September.
Criminal jury trials will begin in the Central Criminal Court later this month and across the country in Circuit Courts from the end of August.
But the chief justice said it may be necessary to use two courtrooms for each criminal jury trial, and this would put pressure on resources in some parts of the country.
As a result, the Courts Service is actively seeking additional premises in an attempt to solve this problem.
Judge Clarke also said that remote hearings would continue as long as there was a requirement for social distancing, pointing out that these helped to increase the capacity to conduct witness actions which did require physical hearings.
The chief justice also said the judiciary and Courts Service had identified areas where “straightforward legislation” would enable the courts to conduct more business, and talks had been taking place with the Department of Justice & Equality on the details.
On the Supreme Court, Judge Clarke said he expected most appeals to continue to be heard remotely in the immediate future, though he expected the number of appeals to the court to rise in line with increased activity in the High Court and the Court of Appeal.
He said the Supreme Court has been taking advantage of the temporarily reduced number of new cases to implement new procedures, bring the delivery of reserved judgments up to date and minimise the time between the grant of leave to appeal and the hearing.
“It is currently anticipated that all cases in respect of which leave to appeal has been or will be granted before the end of July will be in a position to be offered a date for hearing before the end of November,” the chief justice said.
“Likewise, it seems likely that any cases which are given leave to appeal during August and September will, if they can be made ready in time, be heard before Christmas.”
The President of the Court of Appeal, Mr Justice George Birmingham, said the court had heard 125 appeals remotely since COVID-19 restrictions were introduced and expected to deal with another 50 before 31 July.
He said the Court of Appeal intended to sit to deal with appeals during September, with some remote cases, some traditional physical hearings and some a mix of both.
The cases listed on the civil side in September will mostly be cases which had been listed earlier, but which were not in a position to proceed because it was felt that a remote hearing would not be suitable.
On the criminal side, a number of cases have been given dates in October. “It is envisaged that it will be possible to assign a date before the end of 2020 to every case where submissions have been filed by the moving party,” Mr Justice Bermingham said.