All jury trials in England and Wales are to be put on hold as part of ongoing efforts to halt the spread of Covid-19.
In a statement on Monday, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, said no new trials will start and that ongoing trials will be paused while arrangements are put in place so they can continue safely.
Earlier in the week, Lord Burnett, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said no new trials expected to last three days or more would go ahead amid the deepening coronavirus crisis.
But, as pressure from members of the legal profession mounted on the Government to halt court hearings, the extraordinary step of suspending all new trials was taken.
Lord Burnett said: “As the Prime Minister has been telling the country, the spread of Covid-19 has continued to accelerate.
“The clear message from Government is to take all precautions to avoid unnecessary contact.
“A review of the arrangements in our courts is called for.
“I have decided that we need to pause jury trials for a short time to enable appropriate precautions to be put in place.”
Lord Burnett said arrangements have been made to conduct as many hearings as possible using telephone, video and other technology, and that HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is “working round the clock” on these new measures.
But he said some hearings, “the most obvious being jury trials”, could not be carried out remotely.
We continue to review situation & listen to feedback from legal professionals, court & tribunal staff, & all users.
We are hugely grateful to all who are working hard to keep our justice system running. 4/4
— HMCTS (@HMCTSgovuk) March 22, 2020
He said: “My unequivocal position is that no jury trials or other physical hearings can take place unless it is safe for them to do so.
“Today no new trials are to start. Jurors summoned for this week are to be released, if possible without entering the building, and told that they will be asked to return for trials where specific arrangements to ensure safety have been put in place.
“All other hearings in the Crown Court that can lawfully take place remotely should do so.”
The judge said jury trials which have already started should continue if possible, with strict social distancing procedures “at all times and at all places within the court building”.
He also said ongoing trials must be adjourned, if necessary, to allow these safety measures to be put in place.
Lord Burnett added: “Considerable imagination and flexibility may be needed to achieve that. This is already happening in some Crown Courts.
We’re working to keep all those who use our courts & tribunals safe by:
– enabling as many hearings as possible to take place using telephone, video-link or online tech– prioritising certain types of hearings 2/4#coronavirus
— HMCTS (@HMCTSgovuk) March 22, 2020
“HMCTS will continue to work to ensure that safety measures are in place in all parts of the court building in which trials are already taking place.
“The basic hygiene arrangements urged upon us by the Prime Minister must be available.
“Resident judges, with their staff, will determine whether a trial can safely be continued.
“If it is necessary to adjourn trials already under way for a short period to put those safety measures in place, this must be done.”
Lord Burnett said the same considerations will apply to Magistrates’ Courts, which will need to continue to deal with urgent work, and that hearings should take place remotely if the facilities exist.
Regarding the civil and family courts, where some hearings were held over Skype last week, he said physical hearings should only take place if a remote hearing is not possible and if suitable safety arrangements can be made.
Lord Burnett said the guidance would be updated as events continue to unfold.
Following the Lord Chief Justice’s announcement, HMCTS updated its guidance regarding courts, telling people who had not been selected for a trial, or not started jury service yet, not to attend court.
In addition, no juror who should be self-isolating according to Government advice should go to court, even if they are involved in an ongoing trial.
The guidance also said cleaning and provision of hand-washing facilities would be stepped up, and efforts made to provide hand sanitiser at every court site.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded to a question about courts during a press briefing on Sunday, saying: “Firstly, on the courts quickly, many courts are already using video trials, using remote technology to do their business, but we are keeping that under constant review.”
Juries cannot sensibly appear via “tech”. Jurors need to see, feel and judge a witness’s demeanour and look at and consider evidence. The weight of the knife. The size of the drugs package. The colour of the jumper. The reaction of the witness. They need to deliberate together.
— Joanna Hardy (@Joanna__Hardy) March 22, 2020
Earlier on Sunday, Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive officer of HMCTS, referred to jurors being included in the list of key workers published at the end of last week in response to a query on Twitter.
She added that advice to jurors was: “Don’t come if you are vulnerable, or showing symptoms. But otherwise, do come – because justice is not optional.”
But a number of members of the legal profession said the courts should not keep running amid the crisis.
Joanna Hardy, a criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers tweeted: “Put simply – jury trials involve people coming to court.
“And, for the moment, the assembly of groups of people should be stopped because people are dying.
“That isn’t a value comparison between justice and death. It’s a pause. To take stock. To work out what we do next.”