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Jury trials in England and Wales are to resume from next week, the lord chief justice Lord Burnett has announced.
The decision was revealed on Monday following prime minister Boris Johnson’s address to the nation on Sunday, which outlined a gradual easing of the lockdown over the coming weeks and months.
All jury trials were suspended at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March, though remand and sentencing hearings have continued via videolink.
Earlier this month, several senior judges in England and Wales had suggested that virtual proceedings and smaller juries may be necessary if jury trials were to resume post-lockdown.
Special arrangements will be made in courts to maintain social distancing and other safety measures.
Lord Burnett said: “It is important that the administration of justice continues to function whenever it is possible in an environment which is consistent with the safety of all those involved.”
The first courts where new juries will be sworn in include the Old Bailey in London and Cardiff Crown Court.
Public Health England and Public Health Wales have been involved in the detailed arrangements following recommendations from the Jury Trials Working Group, chaired by Mr Justice Edis, which has representatives from the legal profession and across the criminal justice system.
Other courts around the country are being assessed with the aim of gradually increasing the number of cases when it is safe to do so, with the facilities at each location being “carefully considered” in line with safety guidelines.
Arrangements to allow social distancing measures to be maintained include providing a second courtroom with CCTV to enable journalists and others to watch proceedings, and another courtroom in use for jury deliberations.
Court staff will also be tasked with ensuring entrances and exits are carefully supervised and that all necessary cleaning takes place.
The trials will go ahead with 12 jurors, despite earlier suggestions the number of jurors might be reduced.
The announcement added: “Jury service is an essential part of criminal justice and jurors perform a vital duty.”
In a statement on the government’s website, justice secretary Robert Buckland said: “I am extremely grateful to the lord chief justice, the wider judiciary, legal professions, court staff and colleagues from across the criminal justice system for their determination and resolve in the discussions to get us to this point.
“Coming together in that spirit of collaboration will ensure that justice can continue to be done in a way that is safe for all court users.”
In response to the announcement, Amanda Pinto QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council, which represents 18,000 barristers in England and Wales, said: “It is very encouraging to see that jury trials will start up again from mid-May. Jury trials are essential to our criminal justice system and to the rule of law.
“It is reassuring that efforts to restart jury trials have involved a painstaking and cautious approach, that prioritises practical measures to ensure the safety of all those involved in the delivery of criminal justice.
“The decision has not been made lightly.
“The Bar Council sees these first steps in managing and, then, we anticipate, as soon as is safely possible, rolling out jury trials more broadly across the nation, as a positive sign that criminal justice matters.”
A spokesperson for the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said: “The CBA appreciates the very real pressure building through the system both before and since the lockdown on potential criminal offences committed within domestic abuse situations.
“With awareness of an increase in reporting of domestic abuse incidents being reported and the interim police and CPS Covid-19 charging protocol ensuring domestic abuse offences remain a priority, it is incumbent on us all to maintain a functioning criminal justice system, including when safely possible physical court hearings, so justice can be done fairly for all parties.”