Law360, London (May 11, 2020, 3:35 PM BST) -- Criminal trials in England and Wales will ease back into action next week following a two-month hiatus after the judiciary announced special arrangements Monday to gradually begin reopening courts shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic.
New jury trials can start this month if they follow safety arrangements designed to keep jurors, lawyers and the press separated. (AP)
The news comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson's address Sunday evening, when he said some restrictions imposed during the lockdown will be eased as the the government looks to get people back to work.
"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," Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett said.
Trials will be held in line with the government's social distancing guidelines by spreading jurors apart and running closed-circuit television in other rooms to allow reporters and the public to view the proceedings.
The courts were closely scrutinized by a small judicial working committee to see whether their size and form could cope with social distancing while protecting the health and safety of participants.
The first courts to reopen will be the Central Criminal Court in London and Cardiff Crown Court in Wales. Only a few trials are expected to resume initially as officials weigh when it is safe to increase the volume. The number of jurors will stay at 12, after judicial officials floated the idea of reducing the size of juries.
Amanda Pinto QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council, said the judiciary's decision was encouraging.
"Jury trials are essential to our criminal justice system and to the rule of law," Pinto said. "It is reassuring that efforts to restart jury trials have involved a painstaking and cautious approach, that prioritizes practical measures to ensure the safety of all those involved in the delivery of criminal justice."
The decision comes as a fraud trial against three men accused of bribing an Iraqi public official is aiming to resume this week with closing speeches. The case centers on allegations that the Monaco oil and gas consultancy Unaoil paid $6 million in bribes to "tip the scales" in favor of companies vying for $800 million in contracts to build oil pipelines and offshore mooring stations in Iraq.
While some in the legal industry have pressed the judiciary to reopen over concerns about the backlog and the threat to barristers' livelihoods, some groups have warned that virtual courtrooms are the only viable option.
Civil courts have turned to remote hearings to keep cases moving through the system, but the criminal bar has opposed virtual jury trials as an affront "at the heart of the right to fair trial."
Judicial officials on Monday said court staff will ensure entrances and exists are supervised, and that the facilities are cleaned.
--Additional reporting by Richard Crump. Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.
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