Royal Mail strikes could cause further delays to criminal trials after jurors failed to receive summonses in the post.
In a memo sent to senior judges at crown courts in England and Wales, seen by The Telegraph, court service officials warned of a potential shortfall in jurors this month as a result of the postal strikes.
The document warned judges that Royal Mail strikes mean that “a large number of summonses” sent before the Christmas period alerting people to jury duty for the weeks of Feb 6 and 13 “have not reached them”.
Court officials also suggested to judges desperate for jurors: “As a very last resort, you can summons people nearby the court to make up the numbers.” That means random members of the public near the court and off the street could be drawn into cases.
Judges were also warned to tell any prospective jurors that they may be needed for longer than the standard minimum 10 working days.
Juror shortages already reported
The leaked memo comes after the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) organised a series of strikes before Christmas amid a row with Royal Mail bosses over pay and working conditions.
However, officials from His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) told judges to “avoid blaming” the postal service when speaking to jurors.
The memo read: “Please note that whilst we assume that the non-delivery of the summonses is connected to the Royal Mail strikes, we cannot be certain, so please avoid ‘blaming’ them when you speak to jurors.
“A simple: ‘We’re currently managing our juror pools to ensure that we have the right numbers at each court over the forthcoming weeks. We’d be grateful if you could postpone/move etc’ message is suggested.”
Criminal barristers have suggested that there are already shortages of jurors in some courts.
One, who did not want to be identified, reported that: “After almost three days of trying to get a jury sworn in on an eight-week trial, our court usher was sent out into the local vicinity to find random members of the public who were prepared to help. She found six.”
Courts struggle to reduce backlog
The shortage of jurors comes as the crown courts struggle to reduce the backlog of almost 60,000 cases – almost double the number prior to the coronavirus lockdowns.
Attempts to clear the backlog have been further hampered due to a shortage of judges, as well as prosecution and defence barristers.
A dispute between the criminal defence barristers and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) over legal aid rates last year resulted in a strike that added to the growing number of cases waiting to go through the courts
There is also a shortfall in barristers who will accept instructions from the Crown Prosecution Service after Brandon Lewis, who briefly served as justice secretary in Liz Truss’s government, cut a deal to end the strike over defence rates and boosted fees by 15 per cent.
That means criminal law specialist barristers are more inclined to accept defence rather than prosecution instruction, as the legal aid rates for the former are now significantly higher.
Royal Mail 'sorry for any disruption'
The MoJ and Royal Mail have been contacted for comment.
A CWU spokesman said: “If true, this demonstrates the valuable role postal workers play in society – a value that is not being accepted by their employers.
“Our striking members want to get out serving our communities and country, but they will not accept the destruction of their livelihoods.”
A HMCTS spokesman said: “Thanks to the hard work of staff, we have ensured there are enough jurors to deliver justice and do not anticipate significant disruption.”
A Royal Mail spokesman said: “We are very sorry for any disruption and delay that strike action has caused.
“After each period of industrial action, we have increased our network capacity and used additional resources to assist with getting services back to normal as quickly as possible.
“We continue to seek a resolution to the dispute with the CWU so that we can avoid any more damaging strike action in the future.”