Jury trials will resume from next week after a seven-week lockdown due to coronavirus. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett has decided that new jury trials may be started from May 18 under ‘special arrangements’ to bring the courts in line with Public Health England and Public Health Wales guidelines. Small numbers of trials are expected to take place in a phased approach with the first courts in which new juries can be sworn including the Old Bailey and Cardiff Crown Court.
‘It is important that the administration of justice continues to function whenever it is possible in an environment which is consistent with the safety of all those involved,’ commented the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett.
Keeping the courts running through the pandemic had ‘necessarily meant huge changes to ways of working… including a significant increase in the take-up of remote technology,’ said the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland. ‘Despite the considerable challenges, many thousands of hearings across all jurisdictions were heard over the last month.’ Around 90% of those hearings used audio and video equipment by the end of April and 159 priority courts and tribunals remained open for physical hearings, he said.
The new arrangements to allow for appropriate distancing including the provision of a ‘second courtroom’ linked by closed circuit TV for journalists and the public to watch proceedings.
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar, said that it was ‘very encouraging’ to see the resumption of jury trials. ‘It is reassuring that efforts to restart jury trials have involved a painstaking and cautious approach, that prioritises practical measures to ensure the safety of all those involved in the delivery of criminal justice. The decision has not been made lightly,’ she said. ‘The Bar Council sees these first steps in managing and, then, we anticipate, as soon as is safely possible, rolling out jury trials more broadly across the nation, as a positive sign way that criminal justice matters.’
The Young Legal Aid Lawyers called for ‘guarantees’ that its members and other court users would not be put at risk when jury trials resume. ‘The reality is that junior lawyers often travel significant distances by bus, tube and national rail to attend hearings. If jury trials are to resume safely, careful consideration must be given as to how all participants in a criminal trial are expected to travel to court. Pressure should not be put on our members to risk their safety by using public transport,’ YLAL said. The group added that the ‘cleanliness’ of courts had been ‘a significant concern to our members even before the pandemic’.
‘Hundreds of people will be entering the courts, using the same spaces, door handles, seats, etc,’ it said. ‘Each court must be certified as safe with appropriate hygiene measures put in place, including increased and routine cleaning of surfaces, adequate soap, water and dryer facilities in the bathrooms, the availability of hand sanitiser and the provision of personal protective equipment.’