Crown court trials expected to last longer than three days have been put on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak after sustained pressure from lawyers.
Tonight, the Lord Chief Justice released a statement announcing the adjournment of all cases of this length expected to begin in April.
The move came after the head of the barristers body for England and Wales said that continuing with trials during the crisis was a “game of Russian roulette with the participants’ health”.
Trials currently underway will continue in the hope that they can be completed, the statement said.
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) had been insisting that the business of the courts would continue as normal, despite the Prime Minister yesterday telling the public to work from home and avoid bars and restaurants.
Chief Justice Lord Burnett added 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”.
As many hearings as possible will instead be conducted with some or all of the participants attending by telephone, video-link or online.
Multiple prominent figures in the profession had spoken out against the business-as-normal plans, with Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC today calling for an “urgent halt” to jury trials:
“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, had also 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.
The MOJ was contacted for comment.