UK lord chief justice advises ministers to cut down on jury trials

Social distancing continues to be an issue in the process of bringing jurors together

UK lord chief justice advises ministers to cut down on jury trials

The lord chief justice of England and Wales has advised ministers to limit the availability of jury trials due to the difficulty of implementing social distancing measures in courtrooms, according to the Law Society Gazette.

Jury trials recommenced in a number of courts beginning 18 May under health and safety guidelines. Measures imposed included the use of a second courtroom from which the media and the public could observe proceedings via closed-circuit TV and a third courtroom for deliberation purposes.

Presently, serious matters like rape and murder are being tried in the usual way in England and Wales, while comparatively minor matters are still to be handled by magistrates. However, “either-or” offences, including assault, theft and burglary, can proceed in both ways; thus, parties can demand a jury trial.

However, many hearing venues are considered too small to fit 12 jurors under current guidelines. If social distancing must be maintained through 2020, the government and parliament may be pushed to delay jury trials—a move Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett, Baron Burnett of Maldon, does not find desirable.

To limit the possibility of backlog increasing as a result of such delays, Burnett made a number of suggestions to policymakers on limiting jury involvement.

“A possibility that I believe is worthy of consideration by policymakers is to legislate to enable, for a short time, the disposal of either-way trials in the Crown court by a judge sitting with two magistrates,” Burnett said in BBC Radio 4 programme Law in Action.

Burnett has said that the need to involve the public is a major factor in conducting jury trials, and this measure would eliminate the need to facilitate social distancing among jurors while still fulfilling this purpose.

He also recommended cutting down on the number of jurors needed for trials, noting that in World War II, juries were cut from 12 members to 7 except in cases involving murder and treason.

A jury-trial method that is set to be pilot-tested in Edinburgh involves gathering jurors together in a separate room, from which they would attend hearings via video link. However, this is not an idea that Burnett favours.

“That is something which has been discussed in London, but so far, it hasn’t secured a great deal of enthusiastic support,” he said. “Not least because it seemed to make the jury spectators rather than participants in a trial; and judges and lawyers are undoubtedly concerned, as I don’t doubt they’re concerned in Scotland too, about a lack of engagement between the jury and the advocates; and the jury and the judge; and the jury and the defendant and witnesses.”

Last month, Burnett also pitched the use of temporary venues to deal with court backlogs.

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