A jury trial resumed at the Old Bailey yesterday, with barristers in the jury and press boxes, and jurors socially distancing in counsel’s rows after being told there were no face masks for them.
Yesterday, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, announced that new jury trials may be started from next Monday in a few courts – including the Old Bailey and Cardiff Crown Court – under special arrangements to maintain the safety of all participants.
But a murder trial which began in early March resumed yesterday, with evidence being heard from today.
His Honour Judge Philip Katz QC, had decided not to discharge the jury when the lockdown came into force on 23 March and has remained in communication with the jurors since.
The murder trial is being beamed across two courts by video-link while jurors are seated two metres apart from each other in the rows of seats usually used by the lawyers, with Timothy Cray QC, prosecuting, and barristers for the six defendants addressing the court from the jury and press boxes.
Other lawyers – including junior counsel – police, family members and reporters can follow proceedings from the second court.
One juror, an elderly man, had been excused from service after it was decided the trial could go on without him and HHJ Katz stressed to the remaining jurors that their safety was of the upmost importance.
He handed jurors a document, ‘Safety guidance for the jury’, which set out rules for them to follow. Aside from telling staff if they felt unwell, jurors have been asked to maintain social distancing.
Now that they qualify as key workers, they were told to get a Covid-19 test if they became unwell. They can also be provided with a note explaining why they are out of the house or using public transport.
But the judge added: “Currently the court cannot supply masks but there is a limited supply of gloves… If you need to cough, sneeze or blow your nose, please use the tissues and bins.”
Jurors were informed that the absence of face masks was being looked into and hopefully would be resolved quickly.
The court will not be providing water for the jurors, who were advised to bring in their own bottles. Court six has been converted into a jury room.
Jurors were due to return for a 11am start today and they will sit until 3pm in an effort to avoid the evening rush hour and limit any health risks posed by travelling on public transport.
They will be assisted with parking spaces if they would rather drive.
Meanwhile, Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC said the Lord Chief Justice’s announcement was “very encouraging”.
She said: “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 decision has not been made lightly. The Bar Council sees these first steps in managing and, then, we anticipate, as soon as is safely possible, rolling out jury trials more broadly across the nation, as a positive sign way that criminal justice matters.”
Simon Davis, Law Society president, said the extent of the roll-out, particularly with new trials, should be determined by the number of courts able to meet the health requirements.
“We must avoid a rush to open courts where it is not yet possible to ensure adequate safety and the right protections.
“The priority in the coming weeks must be to carefully balance access to justice with the safety of judges, lawyers, jurors, the parties and court users – without compromising on justice.”