Jury trials ‘must be stopped to avoid coronavirus Russian roulette’

The government has been urged to temporarily halt jury trials, after it was announced jurors are expected to attend court as normal amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Updated guidance says jury service is continuing for those already on trial and individuals should come to court ‘unless they have a reason not to’.

However, one of Britain’s most prominent barristers has warned that being part of a trial should not be a game of ‘Russian roulette’.

The court and tribunals advice, published by the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) claims jurors should remain at home if they have signs coronavirus or a diagnosis of the illness, are over 70, have a weakened immune system, an underlying health condition or are pregnant.

Other exemptions include those following official government advice on self-isolation and those who have another reason aside from coronavirus why they cannot attend.

The guidance says that jury service is an ‘essential’ part of the criminal justice system and ‘one of the most important civic duties a citizen can undertake’.

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It adds: ‘If you’re due to do jury service in future, or if you have started your jury service already but have not yet been selected for a trial, we will keep in touch with you and let you know what’s expected.

‘We’re carefully following Government advice and keeping the situation under constant review.’

The latest Government guidance, updated on Monday night, said that during the current phase of the outbreak ‘the business of our courts and tribunals continues’.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service said no new criminal jury trials will be commenced or new juries empanelled until further notice, but trials that had already commenced would run to conclusion, if practical to do so.

But The Bar Council, which represents over 17,000 barristers in England and Wales, has claimed it is receiving reports of jurors dropping out of cases all over the country.

Amanda Pinto QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council, has called for the Ministry of Justice to ‘put an urgent halt to jury trials for the time being’.

She said: ‘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.

‘All those involved in court proceedings, be they barristers, witnesses, defendants, jurors or members of the public (let alone court staff and judges), should not be expected to attend court, whilst the rest of the country is very strongly urged to work from home and to avoid “non-essential contact’ and ‘confined spaces”.’

Government advice urges all courts and tribunal users, including defendants, jurors, witnesses and lawyers, to seek out the latest official information on prevention, treatment and travel.

It says: ‘As long as you, or the people who are coming to court with you, do not have confirmed or possible coronavirus (Covid-19) infection and do not need to self-isolate in line with NHS advice, you should continue to use courts and tribunals as usual.’