All criminal trials expected to last more than three days will be postponed at least until after the end of April, the lord chief justice of England and Wales has announced.
In the first major response by the justice system to the health alarm over the coronavirus, Lord Burnett of Maldon has decided to delay longer running trials because of the risk that too many jurors could fall ill so the hearing might have to be abandoned.
In a statement on Tuesday evening, the judiciary’s head said: “Trials in the crown court present particular problems in a fast-developing situation because they require the presence in court of many different participants including the judge, the jury, a defendant, lawyers and witnesses as well as staff.
“Given the risks of a trial not being able to complete, I have decided that no new trial should start in the crown court unless it is expected to last for three days or less. All cases estimated to last longer than three days listed to start before the end of April 2020 will be adjourned.
“These cases will be kept under review and the position regarding short trials will be revisited as circumstances develop and in any event next week. As events unfold decisions will be taken in respect of all cases awaiting trial in the crown court. Trials currently under way will generally proceed in the hope that they can be completed.”
Up until Tuesday, the Ministry of Justice had merely recommended that jurors feeling ill should stay away from court and that wherever possible more use should be made of remote video-links for evidence to be given.
But pressure for action had been growing as large sections of the economy move towards working from home. Earlier the Scottish courts and tribunals service declared no more fresh jury trials would start because of the risk of viral infection.
In a statement issued at lunchtime on Tuesday the Scottish authority said it was trying to take appropriate measures to protect the health of all court users. “As a result from today, 17 March,” it noted, “no new criminal jury trials will be commenced or new juries empanelled until further notice. This will be kept under review. Where jury trials have already commenced these will run to conclusion of the trial, if practical to do so.”
Calls for judicial action in England and Wales had been increasing. Earlier on Tuesday, Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, which represents all barristers south of the border, urged the government to temporarily end jury trials during the Covid-19 outbreak.
She said: “We are calling for the Ministry of Justice to put an urgent halt to jury trials for the time being … Being in a jury trial should not be a game of Russian roulette with the participants’ health.
“All those involved in court proceedings, be they barristers, witnesses, defendants, jurors or members of the public (let alone court staff and judges), should not be expected to attend court, whilst the rest of the country is very strongly urged to work from home and to avoid ‘non-essential contact’ and ‘confined spaces’.”
Caroline Goodwin QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association in England and Wales, had also warned: “Statements indicating that the courts are operating as normal or that it is business as usual emanating from the government do not reflect the realities on the ground. Many of our members may have either pre-existing conditions/pregnancy or close family members falling into the priority groups.
“The CBA considers that the current risks posed to court users, including our members, by the continuation of jury trials at this stage, absent proper procedures and protocols being put in place, is too great.
“Court hearings should be limited to those considered essential for the time being, with others utilising phone and video-links where appropriate and subject to proper safeguards. We would oppose any effort to curtail this fundamental right and conduct trials without juries.”