Justice Amidst Crisis: Coronavirus puts trials on hold

April 17, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Jury trials across England and Wales are to be put on hold in light of measures to limit the spread of Covid-19.

What does this mean?

Lord Burnett, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, announced that no new trials are to start and ongoing trials are to be put on hold, as the government continues to increase measures to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Suspending new trials is a significant step. Lord Burnett explained this decision by stating that “the clear message from Government is to take all precautions to avoid unnecessary contact”. This calls for “a review of the arrangements in our courts”. He emphasised that measures are being taken to hold trials remotely, but did acknowledge that some hearings, such as jury trials, could not be held remotely. Burnett said that jury trials that have begun should continue where possible, in line with strict social distancing procedures and that ongoing trials must be adjourned, in order to implement appropriate safeguards. Juries already summoned are to be released, without entering court buildings if possible and will be asked to return when arrangements guaranteeing safety are put into place.

The halting of court hearings also gives rise to the debate of whether jurors should risk their own health and the spread of infection, by attending court. Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS)  included jurors as key workers and urged them to come to court if they displayed no symptoms, stating that “justice is not optional”. However, there has been significant backlash from the legal profession, with arguments that courts should not be running as normal in the midst of this pandemic.

What's the big picture effect?

As we are now forced to adjust to new ways of working remotely, conducting court trials digitally has become an obligation rather than an option. Exposure to and spreading the virus carries a huge risk, thus holding and attending trials remotely is an approach that is favoured by many. Initiatives are already being set up, such as Remote Courts Worldwide, a project that pushes forward video conferencing and online courts and which enables the justice community to share their experiences of developing online courts. Coronavirus, therefore, may accelerate the pace at which online courts and remote trials become routine. 

However, there are valid concerns that conducting trials remotely will not have the same impact as traditional hearings. Technology cannot offer the same experience of hearing the arguments of jurors and witnesses, viewing evidence in person and deliberating during jury trials.  There is a lack of clarity about how the online courts will operate, however new rules and ways of working will undoubtedly emerge and this will be a process of trial and error. 

Pausing trials will also result in a loss of earnings and job security for barristers, impacting junior barristers the hardest. The Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) have called on the Government and the wider profession to provide support to its members through tax breaks or other incentives. As such, there will be an even greater financial strain on legal aid and those who provide it, further impeding access to justice.

Making it compulsory for jurors, barristers and other members of the public to attend trial is at odds with the government’s policy to practice social distancing and heightens the risk to public health. Thus, halting trials in the midst of coronavirus puts forward the dilemma of justice versus public health and safety.  It remains to be seen whether the outcome of the virus will erode the justice system further, leading to greater backlog in cases pending trial or if this will result in a push to implement much-needed changes and reforms to the courts and the provision of legal aid.

Report written by Laila Khan

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