In a startling announcement, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland admitted that the right to a jury trial is in his sights and might be curtailed in a few weeks time. Before the Coronavirus pandemic, the Crown Court case backlog was approximately 39,000 cases. Since lockdown, that number has grown considerably as only a trickle of cases have been dealt with due to the inadequacy of the court estate.
The pandemic was not, of course, responsible for the initial backlog. Many years of court closure and chronic underfunding meant that any slight pressure on the system, let alone a pandemic, might lead to a total collapse.
Only a handful of jury trials have taken place in the last three months, and that situation is unlikely to improve materially. With the threat of a second spike in the Winter months, the Ministry of Justice is seeking an urgent solution to the problems it now faces.
The options appear to be:
- A massive rebalancing of funds to build emergency court centres that are Covid compliant for trial purposes (similar to Nightingale hospitals).
- The abolition entirely of jury trial, with Judge alone trials taking their place (‘Diplock Courts’).
- A hybrid system, perhaps a Judge sitting with two magistrates.
- A jury panel reduced in size (perhaps as few as seven people sitting).
Option four would increase capacity by only 5-10%, so that appears to have been ruled out.
Option three would increase capacity by 40% and that, alongside Nightingale Courts, appears to be the direction that the government wishes to take.
Buckland said: ‘If it is done it would be temporary and not be the basis for a permanent change.’
The Law Society believes that there are better solutions, commenting:
‘Reducing jury numbers and using non-court buildings for additional courtrooms are preferable solutions to tackling the backlog than restricting jury trials, especially given the reduction in social distancing measures announced today [23 June 2020].’
Any changes of this nature will require legislation to be passed by parliament, and given a recess date of 21 July 2020 that must now be done with some urgency.
We will be watching developments closely over the coming days. We will be ready to respond and play our part in ensuring that a world-class court system is not sacrificed on the altar of financial expediency.
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