Crown court trials due to last longer than three days will be postponed in a bid to fight the spread of coronavirus.
The move comes following pressure for the Government to make clear its strategy for how to minimise the impact of Covid-19 on hearings. All cases longer than three days due to start before the end of April will be postponed.
In a statement issued tonight it was announced the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett – the most senior judge in England and Wales – had made the decision due to the risk of trials not being able to complete.
It said the impact of the coronavirus pandemic had been under ‘constant review’ and that criminal trials pose ‘particular problems in a fast-moving situation’ because of the involvement of many participants including the judge, jurors, defendants, lawyers, witnesses and court staff.
Postponed cases will be kept under review and the decision to delay shorter trials will be revisited as circumstances develop, the statement said.
All trials currently underway will carry on as planned and those attending court including jurors have been asked to follow Public Health England guidance when on site.
Steps are being taken for other court cases where no jurors are involved, including at family and magistrates’ courts, to be held as regularly as possible – with some or all of those involved attending by telephone, videolink or online.
The statement added: ‘Many court hearings will be able to continue as normal with appropriate precautions being taken.
‘We must make every effort to maintain a functioning court system in support of the administration of justice and rule of law.’
Earlier on Tuesday, organisations representing lawyers called for jury trials to be halted and said the risks of them continuing were ‘too great’.
Previous official guidance from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) said that during the current phase of the outbreak ‘the business of our courts and tribunals continues’.
The Bar Council, which represents around 17,000 barristers in England and Wales, urged the MoJ on Tuesday to stop jury trials ‘for the time being’, warning that around the country there are reports of jurors being forced to drop out of cases due to self-isolating, or coming to court when they should have stayed away, putting the health of others at risk.
Chairwoman Amanda Pinto QC said: ‘Being in a jury trial should not be a game of Russian roulette with the participants’ health.’