Virtual trials with physical jury hubs could be an effective way of clearing the significant Crown court backlog caused by Covid-19, academics evaluating the latest experiment from a legal thinktank have said.
Justice has been conducting mock jury trials since April as part of an experiment to see if it is possible to hold virtual trials that meet the principles of fairness, accuracy of evidence and certainty during the pandemic.
In the first two trials, participants were in separate locations. In the third trial, the jury remained dispersed. In the final trial, jurors were assembled together in a physical ‘jury hub’ and the other participants appeared remotely. The defendant appeared via a video link from prison.
An evaluation report published yesterday says the most serious concerns raised by participants in the first three trials related to IT problems and internet connectivity. Participants in the fourth trial considered the creation of a physical justice hub a success and it dealt with many issues that arose in the earlier experiments.
The hub was a South London facility which had a reception area, large hall with lots of natural light, kitchen and three unisex toilets. Each juror had two screens on their socially distanced desks, one for viewing the virtual courtroom and the other for viewing trial documents. A four-strong technical team were on site in a separate room.
The report says the physical hub gave control of technology back to the organisers. Good quality equipment was guaranteed. The need for jurors to operate new systems and solve technological problems remotely were removed. The connection from the hub to the virtual courtroom did not fail. Participants noticed that the jury was ‘very engaged’ with the case – taking notes, asking pertinent questions and asking for more evidence.
The report says: ‘The fourth virtual trial with a physical jury hub was widely considered across the team to be the most successful of the four experiments. In particular, there were far fewer technical problems, all of the responsibilities of jurors regarding technical provision were removed and everyone seemed engaged in the proceedings. These findings are in addition to the benefits outlined in the first report of the pilot which drew attention to the democratising effect of the defendant being more central to deliberations than they would be in a physical court and being placed alongside their counsel.
‘It is in the view of the authors that HMCTS should seriously consider the benefits of this format for restarting criminal jury trials, in order to deal with the significant backlog facing the criminal justice system.’
Jury trials were paused at the start of lockdown but are slowly returning as HMCTS reopens more court buildings. However, this week the lord chief justice said ministers should consider limiting the availability of jury trials if court delays become unmanageable. The criminal justice system is currently facing a backlog of more than 40,000 cases.