All new cases in crown courts lasting longer than three days will be put off until May at the earliest amid concern over the health risks to jurors, staff, lawyers and judges.
However, trials already underway will continue in the hope they will be able to finish without large-scale disruption.
The announcement came less than 24 hours after justice minister Chris Philp declared that courts would be operating normally and “justice will continue”.
Lord Burnett said in a statement that “the operation of the courts has been under constant review” and that steps were being taken to continue most hearings as normal online, by phone or by video-link.
However he added: “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 underway will generally proceed in the hope that they can be completed.”
Lord Burnett urged people attending court to follow the official health guidance, but said: ”We must make every effort to maintain a functioning court system in support of the administration of justice and rule of law.”
The government had come under criticism from lawyers who called for jury trials to be temporarily halted following reports that jurors were being forced to drop out, or coming to court while showing symptoms.
Bar Council Chairwoman Amanda Pinto QC said: “Being in a jury trial should not be a game of Russian roulette with the participants’ health.”
The Criminal Bar Association said in a statement: “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 make it clear that the right to trial by jury is a fundamental right enjoyed by all citizens and that this call is for a temporary cessation to allow for proper and considered policies and procedures to be put in place.”