The lord chief justice this morning announced that new trials will be halted in the Crown court until specific arrangements have been made to ensure buildings are safe.
Lord Burnett of Maldon said his ‘unequivocal position’ is that no jury trials or other physical hearings can take place unless it was safe for them to do so.
No new trials will start this morning and jurors summoned for this week are being contacted to ask them to stay at home, although they may be called in to start a new trial later.
Lord Burnett said all hearings in the Crown court that can lawfully take place remotely should do so and other hearings not involving a jury should continue if arrangements can be made to ensure distancing.
But some hearings cannot be conducted remotely and the LCJ has decided to pause jury trials for a short time to enable 'appropriate precautions' to be put in place.
He added that efforts to bring existing jury trials to a conclusion should continue, in line with social distancing guidelines. If it is necessary to adjourn trials underway for a short period to put safety measures in place, this should be done.
The same considerations apply to magistrates’ courts, which will need to continue to deal with urgent work, in accordance with guidance given by the judiciary to judges and staff, the lord chief justice said. All hearings that can lawfully take place remotely should do so if the facilities exist.
The lord chief justice's latest announcement is a further acknowledgement that the justice system cannot continue to operate normally during the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis.
In the civil and family courts, Lord Burnett said hearings requiring the physical presence of parties and their representatives and others should take place only if a remote hearing is not possible and if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure safety.
The government announced on Sunday which legal practitioners will be classified as 'key workers' during the coronavirus crisis - enabling some lawyers to send their children to school where necessary.
The Criminal Bar Association said today that without confirmation from the resident judge that hearings can be conducted with social distancing and hygiene measures are in place, barristers would be 'perfectly entitled' to take the view that they ought not attend in accordance with the LCJ’s guidance.
It added: 'We repeat that if you decide not to attend court, owing to concerns about social distancing, hygiene or in accordance with PHE advice, we will support you.'
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.