Barristers have continued to push the government to suspend jury trials amid risks to the health of court users and jurors during the coronavirus outbreak.
Late last night the head of the judiciary said that all jury trials longer than three days would be suspended.
The Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland today reinforced last night’s decision, saying: “Despite an unprecedented public health emergency, the Prime Minister and I are clear that our courts across England and Wales have a critical role to play and should go on sitting.”
The Ministry of Justice had come under sustained pressure to suspend trials after it had pushed for a business as usual approach.
Today, Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC called for suspension of all in-person hearings across the court system.
“We are calling for a suspension of all in-person hearings across all jurisdictions, save in very exceptional circumstances,” she said in a message to barristers.
“The Bar Council considers that all proceedings conducted in person…are inconsistent with the government’s current health advice.
“Already members of the public are understandably reluctant to appear,” she said.
“The Criminal Bar alongside the Bar Council is still seeking for a suspension of all jury trials with a hiatus of 30 days, in order to allow the public health impact to be properly assessed for all court users,” Criminal Bar Association chair Caroline Goodwin QC said today.
Daniel O’Donoghue, a criminal barrister at 23 Essex Street, told City A.M. that he supported the calls for suspension.
“You go to a court, you have massively unhygienic buildings which are dirty most of the time and hundreds of members of the public are there. You go to the cells and it poses a risk of transmitting coronavirus from people on the outside to the prison environment,” he said.
Gregory Gordon of Guildhall Chambers said a trial he was meant to be working on today had to be postponed after the complainant, a witness and a defence barrister all said they were self-isolating.
Gordon told City A.M. “In court we see some of society’s most vulnerable people, and we are still expected to pack victims, jurors, witnesses, defendants, court staff and lawyers in a room together, at a time when government advice is to work from home…There should be an immediate cessation to jury trials. We are playing politics with peoples’ lives.”
O’Donoghue said there was a risk of jurors simply refusing to attend trials.
“My concern is you will get jurors refusing to come in, which is understandable in the light of the changing advice,” he said.
The head of the judiciary in England and Wales, Lord Burnett, said last night that the position regarding short trials would be kept under review as “circumstances develop”.
He added that the legal sector “must make every effort to maintain a functioning court system in support of the administration of justice and rule of law”.