Jury trials in England and Wales will resume from next week, almost two months after being put on hold amid coronavirus lockdown measures.
The first courts where new juries will be sworn in include the Old Bailey in London and Cardiff Crown Court.
Facilities are being assessed at other courts with a view to gradually increasing cases when safe to do so.
Special arrangements are in place to maintain social distancing alongside other safety measures.
Lord Chief Justice 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.
“Jury service is an essential part of criminal justice and jurors perform a vital duty.”
The announcement was made 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 new jury trials had been suspended on 23 March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, work has been carried out to explore options for conducting trials in a safe manner.
Second courtroom for journalists
Courts around the country are being assessed, 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.
In a statement, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said he was grateful to all those involved in the discussions, adding: “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 “the decision has not been made lightly”.
She added: “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 trials will go ahead with 12 jurors, despite Lord Burnett previously telling the BBC he would support a move to reduce the number of jurors if necessary during the pandemic.
Jury trials involve at least 20 people, but sometimes considerably more, often in a relatively confined space.
Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy said Labour welcomed the resumption of a limited number of jury trials but said the government could also make use of many public buildings currently sitting empty to carry out more.
He added: “During the crisis, as in normal times, jury trials must be accessible to the public. If it is not possible for the public to attend jury trials that are usually publicly observable, they should be streamed online.”
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Barristers ‘may not survive’ lockdown
The Bar Council says the pandemic has had a “devastating” impact on lawyers across England and Wales and that an urgent rescue package is needed from the Treasury.
Ms Pinto QC said: “We have written to the Treasury, setting out the risks of not stepping in to save the justice system and highlighting the fact that existing measures to help barristers do not go far enough.
“We must make the case to ensure that these essential workers – barristers – who have been instrumental in making sure law and order is maintained throughout this crisis, have not disappeared when we resurface from Covid-19.”
The Bar Council’s research claims 53% of self-employed barristers cannot survive for six months, and 74% will not survive for a year, unless the government provides more support.
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