Jury trials will reopen in parts of England and Wales for the first time since it closed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The Lord Chief Justice has announced that just a small number of new trials would begin by next week “under special arrangements to maintain the safety of all participants and the jury”.
The resumption was planned to have proceedings spread between two courtrooms so parties to the trial, journalists and the public can maintain social distancing rule as specified by public health recommendations.
Now, Jurors will use a court to deliberate, rather than the smaller rooms that have always been used. Both the Lord Chief Justice and justice secretary had given their support to cutting jury numbers to seven to make social distancing possible.
They have also confirmed Monday that trials “will be conducted under the same legal standards and procedures as before the Covid-19 emergency, with twelve jurors”.
This comes after discussions by a working group chaired by Mr Justice Edis on how trials, which was put on hold will possibly reopen. Currently, half the courts in England and Wales are shut and magistrates are only hearing urgent matters, creating concerns over backlog.
Presently, there are more than 35,600 outstanding court cases and coronavirus sparked new Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance suggesting that fewer suspects would be charged. Although, some matters were heard remotely not minding concerns over the impact on defendants and justice result.
Just last week Chris Philp, the court’s minister, said 85 per cent of hearings were taking place “principally by audio or video”. But with trials delayed indefinitely, there were fears that the victims of rape cases could drop out and other sensitive trials because of the additional stress and uncertainty caused.
The date for new trials to begin is 18th May while adjourned proceedings will resume where possible in line with advice from Public Health England.
The first courts in which juries can be sworn will include London’s Old Bailey and Cardiff Crown Court. A judicial spokesperson said “small numbers of trials are expected to take place initially” while further courts are assessed against new criteria.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said: “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.”
The announcement came after the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation and stated how lockdown restrictions would be eased.
Coronavirus laws, which will be updated on Wednesday, make public gatherings and leaving home “without reasonable excuse” illegal but attending legal proceedings are an exemption.
The Criminal Bar Association said, “safety must be secured for everyone … so that justice can be delivered with full transparency”.
Chair Caroline Goodwin QC said: “The crown court backlog had arisen months before Covid19 reared its head.
“With a total crown court caseload of over 107,000 cases last year, the Criminal Bar shares the judiciary’s concerns as to how to address the growing backlog safely, so that the hundreds of thousands of people involved in cases left in limbo, are not left waiting in uncertainty any longer.”