Two jury trials will resume at the Old Bailey this week as first steps toward Crown court cases restarting around the country. However, the criminal bar warned that a resumption of normal service ‘remains many weeks off’.
A Serious Fraud Office prosecution of three men for allegedly bribing an Iraqi public official was one of the first trials to be suspended in mid-March as coronavirus brought large parts of the criminal justice system to a standstill.
The murder trial of six teenagers over the fatal stabbing of 17-year-old student Josiph Beker was also brought to a halt by Judge Philip Katz QC as the crisis took hold, but he took the decision not to discharge the jury.
This week both cases are set to resume at the Old Bailey in the first tests of the jury system under strict public health guidelines brought in to combat the spread of the virus. Social distancing rules will be applied to all participants in the trials, including jurors, defendants, lawyers and members of the media, with overspill courtrooms being used for extra space.
A judicial working group, under Mr Justice Edis and reporting to the lord chief justice, is looking at how jury trials can be more widely restart around the country, amid concerns that a growing backlog of cases will cripple the system.
The LCJ, who stopped all new jury trials on March 23 to help combat the spread of Covid-19, has said jury trials will resume only when he is ’confident that the system as a whole is ready’.
Caroline Goodwin QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said the safety of court users was paramount. ‘Despite there being a handful of high-profile adjourned trials likely to resume this month, complete with juries in court, and the possibility also this month of the commencement of more jury trials which remain listed, the CBA is aware that a resumption to anything close to approaching a normal volume of service remains many weeks off,’ she said.
Law Society president Simon Davis said: ‘Where it is possible to ensure good hygiene, appropriate distancing and compliance with all other relevant guidance - then jury trials should resume as soon as it is safe to do so.’
‘The extent of the roll-out will depend on the ability of each court to meet those requirements. Some courts - i.e. those with newer, larger courtrooms – will find it easier than others. The priority must be to carefully balance access to justice with safety as the easing of restrictions are planned in the coming weeks.’
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, announced that new jury trials may be started in a few courts in the week commencing 18 May under special arrangements to maintain the safety of all participants and the jury.
The first courts in which new juries can be sworn will include the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey in London and Cardiff Crown Court.