‘The tap’s been turned off’: Court lockdown leaves fragile defence profession in crisis

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‘The tap’s been turned off’: Court lockdown leaves fragile defence profession in crisis

The head of judiciary in England and Wales has given his backing to cutting the number of jurors in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. ‘It is going to be necessary to look at more radical measures to enable jury trials to continue,’ Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett told the BBC.

‘I would support a move to reduce the number of jurors. That was done during the Second World War,’ he said. ‘Plainly, it would be easier to ensure a safe trial for everybody, with social distancing and other precautions.’

‘Given the limited number of trials that we would be able to conduct in our crown courts, given that every trial will in fact require more than one court for all sorts of reasons, then inevitably rather more profound thinking will be needed to avoid building up an unimaginable backlog,’ Lord Burnett added.

As the BBC noted, cases were already backing prior to the pandemic and by the end of 2019 the number of outstanding cases had reached 37,434.

Meanwhile minister met with leaders of the criminal defence Bar yesterday to talk to about government support to cope with Covid-19. According to a survey by the Criminal Bar Association, four out of 10 respondents reported a drop in income of over 50% and some 85 claimed a reduction in the volume of instructions of over 50%. The CBA has secured a number of hardship provisions allowing for advance payments reducing the threshold for claims from £1000 to £450.

‘Covid 19 has caused a level of disruption unprecedented in recent history. Already fragile, the survival of the criminal bar as we know it, is now at stake,’ commented the CBA chair Caroline Goodwin QC. ‘The funding tap has been switched off. The sudden cessation of criminal trials has cut us off at the knees and the vulnerability of individual barristers is now compounded by the growing danger to the infrastructure in which we operate: Chambers.’

‘A collapse of criminal chambers will have severe consequences on defendants who are in the midst of cases waiting to clear their names and overall will only worsen of delays to the criminal justice system that are already hurting victims of crime, their families and witnesses all inflicted due to years of government inflicted end-to-end cuts.’
Caroline Goodwin QC

The solicitor Karl Turner MP tweeted that defence solicitors were also financially exposed by the pandemic.

Ian Kelcey, a partner in Bristol firm Kelcey & Hall Solicitors in Bristol and co-chair of Law Society Criminal Law Committee, told the BBC he had to furlough 18 staff and cashflow had been cut by 70-80%. ‘There is a real risk that in the long term 70-80% of criminal legal aid firms will disappear, leaving vast areas of the country with no legal aid criminal defence solicitors available to represent people in either police stations or in court,’ he said.