The importance of getting the jury system back up and running in the face of Covid

By Stephen Halloran   Published 13 August, 2020

Luddite

In any criminal justice case, getting to court and having a verdict delivered with haste (and of course proper procedure) is highly desirable for all parties involved. During the interim period, both the accused and the accuser are stuck in a highly unpleasant middle ground typified by a lack of clarity around their future.

Of course with the current Covid crisis and the social distancing measures arising, as a result, the justice system could not continue with business as usual. Combined with existing frailties, we have ended up with a recipe perhaps not for disaster, but with one which will have a significant impact on the lives of many people desperately in need of a way forward.

Budget cuts since 2010 are the root cause of the current backlog of criminal cases, those problems are now being highlighted as a result of Covid. The closure of Court buildings and the reduction in the number of days that Judges can sit resulted in the Crown Court having 37,500 outstanding cases in December 2019. Covid has added about 4,000 cases to the backlog. Trials are already being fixed in 2022.

The solution is the urgent need for more Courts and Judges. The recent commencement of ‘Nightingale Courts’ will have little impact on the backlog. These Courts were long promised to help clear the logjam of criminal cases. Only two of the Nightingale Courts will deal with mainstream criminal work and then only in a limited way. It is essential that the government increase the number of temporary Courts to address the growing crisis and ensure that the Court system receives the investment it needs in the longer term.

Other options (to clear the backlog) were considered and, thankfully, the government stepped back from removing the right to a Jury trial. The option remains of a reduced number of people to sit on a Jury, 7 instead of 12, to maintain social distancing. This would go some way to increasing capacity but it is essential that a sunset clause is added. Imaginative use of other buildings (university lecture theatres/sports halls/conference centres) is another option worthy of consideration.

The so-far slow response to the crisis in the criminal justice system may have received the additional impetus it needed. The recent decision (4th August) by HHJ Raynor at Woolwich Crown Court to refuse an application to extend custody time limits (this is the time within which a trial must start), specifically citing the lack of investment/Courtrooms could mean that defendants who would have remained in custody pending Trial may be released. This may concentrate minds at government level to increase funding to solve a problem of their own making.

About the Author
Stephen-Halloran

This article was contributed by Stephen Halloran, Director & Solicitor Advocate at the London criminal defence solicitors firm Lawtons. To learn more, please visit lawtonslaw.co.uk/our-offices/criminal-defence-solicitors-london/

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