Court trials should take place in empty university lecture halls, schools and leisure centres to help the “incapacitated justice system” during the Covid-19 outbreak, according to Labour.
The Government needs an emergency action plan to maintain open justice during the pandemic and ensure there are lasting improvements afterwards, the opposition party has said.
The calls were made in a letter to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland from shadow justice secretary David Lammy and shadow attorney general Lord Falconer.
Online streaming of court cases should become the norm so the justice system is more open, transparent and fair, they said.
It comes as a group of MPs plans to investigate the impact of Covid-19 on the courts after barristers claimed justice had “ground to a halt”.
In the letter, the pair say the Government must make decisions which are “not only short-term fixes”, but also “address the systematic and historic failings” which left the justice system “critically weakened long before the coronavirus crisis began”.
– The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to “co-opt” large empty buildings so trials can be carried out while observing social distancing.
– All cases, with a few exceptions, to be streamed online and publicly accessible during the crisis while there are restrictions on attending court and to continue afterwards.
– The MoJ to work with the Treasury to make sure barristers and solicitors receive financial support to survive the outbreak.
Mr Lammy said: “There were already huge backlogs in court cases before the Covid-19 crisis began.
“If urgent decisions are not made now, the justice system will be at breaking point by the autumn.
“Many large court rooms, university lecture halls, schools and leisure centres are currently sitting empty.
“The Ministry of Justice should co-opt these buildings if necessary to carry out socially distanced trials according to public health advice.
“Justice delayed must not be allowed to become justice denied.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Judges and staff deserve huge credit for keeping dozens of courts open during this pandemic, and have overseen a vast increase in video and audio hearings.
“The public can be confident that we are doing everything possible to ensure justice is still seen and heard, for instance through remote hearings.
“While jury trials were suspended to protect the public, we are working closely with the judiciary and others to resume them as soon as possible.”
On Thursday the courts and tribunal service (HMCTS) announced new video technology is being used for remote criminal court hearings to keep “the wheels of justice turning” during the Covid-19 lockdown.
A new secure system can be used for different types of cases, such as remand and sentencing hearings, but not jury trials, which are suspended.
The move came as the most senior judge in England and Wales said virtual proceedings and smaller juries may be necessary if jury trials are to resume post-lockdown.
Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett said “radical measures” would need to be looked at, but he would support moves to ensure trials were carried out safely.
The HMCTS said the new video platform will allow all parties in a criminal hearing to take part remotely and all magistrate and crown courts in England and Wales can hold secure hearings.
It will be down to the judge to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the technology is appropriate to use.
Defendants will not appear from their own home and sentencing only takes place if the defendant is in custody or physically in the courtroom.