The Jury is Out: Calls made for non-jury trials during the coronavirus lockdown

May 16, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Two QCs precipitated social media storms suggesting trials should be held without juries.

What does this mean?

Last month, Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, the most senior judge in England and Wales, announced that jury trials were unable to be carried out remotely.  Ongoing social distancing has meant the suspension of juries in physical courtrooms, which may be one of the last institutions to re-open, alongside bars and restaurants. Burnett LJ added that other hearings which could take place remotely ought to do so.  Two Queen’s Counsel (senior barristers) have since suggested non-jury trials would help alleviate increasing pressure on the criminal justice system during the pandemic.  The short-term measures were proposed to help alleviate the courts’ backlog exacerbated by COVID-19. 

Geoffrey Robertson QC proposed the Australian model: offering defendants the choice between a 12-person jury and a judge.  Sir Richard Henriques suggested judges should determine cases without juries throughout the length of the pandemic. The QC added there was already precedent, citing terrorism trials conducted without juries throughout the Northern Ireland Troubles. 

What's the big picture effect?

The calls were not unanimous across senior members of the profession.  Criminal defence barrister Chris Daw QC railed against the comments, branding juries “fundamental” and arguing they “should not be scrapped for even a single case”.  The Scottish Government also swiftly dropped its proposal to abandon jury trials, following a backlash.  

Remote jury trials could however provide a path forward.  In recent years some vulnerable witnesses such as sexual assault victims have given evidence by video-link, replacing the conventional use of courtroom screens.  Justice, a legal reform organisation, experimented with remote jury trials, with juries hearing cases from their homes.  The Commercial Court continues to operate highly effectively through remote hearings, delivering a service remarkably similar, and even more streamlined, than within physical courtrooms.  Electronic bundles allow all parties greater ease and efficiency to navigate than physical papers, thanks to hyperlinked indexes.  The public and journalists may still watch hearings remotely by requesting a link, as posted on the daily lists.        

Richard Susskind, technology advisor to the Lord Chief Justice and author of Online Courts, propounds the virtues of remote courts widening legal access.  Susskind’s website, remotecourts.org, has been tracking its rapid uptake and providing a platform for legal professionals to communicate their experiences.  The pandemic may have strengthened calls across the profession for remote jury trials, but HMCTS (HM Courts and Tribunals Service) maintains it has no such plans.  Despite COVID-19 having catalysed the uptake of virtual hearings, whether remote jury hearings will become the new norm remains to be seen.

Report written by Sophie Belcher

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