The head of the barristers body for England and Wales today called for the government to halt jury trials which she said were a “game of Russian roulette with the participants’ health” during the current coronavirus crisis.
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) is insisting that the business of the courts continue, despite the Prime Minister yesterday telling the public to work from home and avoid bars and restaurants.
In its current guidance for courts, the MOJ said: “During the current phase of the coronavirus outbreak, the business of our courts and tribunals continues.”
This comes despite a string of lawyers and their representative organisations calling for a more decisive response to the crisis to keep lawyers, court workers and the public safe.
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, which represents all barristers in England and Wales, said: “We are calling for the Ministry of Justice to put an urgent halt to jury trials for the time being.
“Barristers up and down the country are telling us that jurors are having to drop out of cases because they are self-isolating or, worse, coming to court when they should not, and thereby putting everyone’s health at risk.
“Being in a jury trial should not be a game of Russian roulette with the participants’ health.”
Caroline Goodwin QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, called for the suspension of jury trials and a move to phone and video hearings whenever possible.
“Statements indicating that the courts are operating as normal or that it is business as usual emanating from the government do not reflect the realities on the ground,” she said.
“The current risks posed to court users, including our members, by the continuation of jury trials at this stage…is too great. Court hearings should be limited to those considered essential for the time being, with others utilising phone and videolinks,” she said.
Yesterday, Justice minister Chris Philip tweeted: “Justice will continue and jurors should attend court tomorrow as per their summons.”
However, today, the head of the judiciary, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said: “It is not realistic to suppose that it will be business as usual in any jurisdiction.”
He also said there was an “urgent need to increase the use of telephone and video technology immediately,” and said emergency legislation was being drafted which is likely to contain clauses expanding the powers of the criminal courts to use technology in hearings.
The MOJ was contacted for comment today.