UPDATE: At 8am on Monday 23 March 2020, the Lord Chief Justice announced a suspension of new jury trials. The details are vague, and hint at a resumption “where specific safety arrangements have been put in place”, but for now, at least, it seems as if a level of sense has prevailed. Regrettably the announcement came far too late to reach many jurors, who will have already embarked upon needlessly risky travel by public transport, but joined up thinking has never been part of the justice system’s core values.
Today, thousands of citizens of England and Wales will attend their local Crown Court in answer to a summons compelling them, under threat of imprisonment, to do their civic duty and serve on a jury.
They will queue with dozens of other strangers to be herded into a packed jury waiting room. Once selected for a jury panel, they will pile into a dirty, windowless courtroom and sit next to each other for five hours a day. At lunch they will mingle with the hundred or so other jurors in the building. At the conclusion of the trial, they will shuffle into a tiny unventilated retiring room, where they will make a decision which could ultimately determine whether somebody spends years of their life in prison.
This is because, even though the government has closed schools, restaurants, pubs, cafes and leisure centres, one area of public life in which, to quote a government minister, we are “operating normally”, is in the criminal courts.
So while Scotland and Northern Ireland have temporarily suspended jury trials, in England and Wales the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland and the Lord Chief Justice have decreed that jury trials lasting up to three days – estimated to be 75 per cent of trials – must take place.
They will do so in filthy conditions where lack of hot water, soap and paper towels is widespread; where broken hand dryers and leaking toilets and burst pipes and crumbling roofs and walls are par for the course; conditions which in the good times we in the courts accept as a permanent feature of a chronically underfunded justice system, but which in the current climate present a far more alarming proposition.
Criminal courts are, basic sanitation aside, a petri dish. Scores of defendants are piled into waiting areas. Most travel by public transport; some travel in “sweatbox” security vans from our infested, overcrowded, virus-rivenprisons. Defendants and their families mix with their barristers, who mix with court staff, who mix with witnesses, judges and jurors, who mix with other witnesses, judges and jurors. Courtrooms vary in size and style; in some of our more antique Victorian courts, jurors are squeezed onto hard wooden benches without an inch between them, let alone the government-recommended two metres. In a fairly typical court I was in last week, the defendants, barristers, clerk, usher, witness box and jury box were all within a two-metre radius of each other.
And by insisting that the shortest trials go ahead, the government is ensuring the highest possible churn of cases; the highest possible turnover of strangers coming into contact with each other.
Over the past few days I have been flooded with messages from terrified jurors, witnesses and court staff aghast that, at a time when the government is frantically urging social distancing on the ground that “infections spread easily in closed spaces where people gather together”, they are being required by law to expose themselves to such conditions. In a closing speech last week, one of my colleagues thanked the jury for their dedication at a time when they were no doubt worried about themselves and their families. One of the jurors burst into tears.
This situation is appallingly unfair to all concerned. How on earth can jurors be expected to concentrate on their task? How can any defendant or victim of crime have faith that the twelve people trying their case are paying full attention to the nuances of the evidence, when those twelve are burdened with the knowledge that, as a direct result of their jury service, they, or someone they love, could die?
And contrary to MoJ dicta, we are not operating normally. Judges are self-isolating; defendants, jurors and witnesses are staying at home as they break out with symptoms; and trials are collapsing all over the country. The Witness Service, the organisation responsible for looking after witnesses at court, has withdrawn its volunteers. Many Crown Court judges are making no secret of their disdain for what the MoJ would wish to term a “strategy”, but which more closely resembles a tribute act to Monty Python’s Black Knight chirpily dismissing each collapsed trial as a mere flesh wound.
The official government line is that “justice is not optional”. A sweet homily, betrayed only by the evidence of the past decade, in which victims, defendants and witnesses have found their cases mishandled or delayed for years due to enormous cuts to the budgets of the police, CPS, courts and legal aid. Justice has been optional whenever financially or politically convenient.
The three-day trial rule has no public health basis behind it, other than a chipper optimism that a trial of such a length might have an outside chance of completing before too many of its core participants drop down. The three-day trials will in general concern the less serious and more straightforward criminal allegations which could realistically wait another few months without too much harm being done.
The primary reason for the intransigence appears to be Mr Buckland’s fear of being the Lord Chancellor Who Closed The Courts, a disfiguring blemish on the CV of any aspiring careerist in this Tough On Crime government. There is also a secondary, practical concern: because of cuts, we have a backlog of over 30,000 Crown Court trials and are currently trying cases for offences said to have occurred two or more years ago. The government knows that a standard two-year delay could quickly become three.
The government should adjourn all jury trials listed in the next twelve weeks. In the Autumn, when it may be safer to do so, we can resume with the adjourned cases, only with the financial firehouse turned on. Instead of running at half-capacity, every Crown Court should run at maximum; the Treasury’s largesse must be extended to the justice system so that we don’t endure the farce of perfectly usable courtrooms sitting locked and empty due to “lack of sitting days” while judges get paid to sit at home. The backlog, both Covid-caused and historic, can be blasted away.
In the meantime, of course, justice and the courts cannot halt completely. Technology may – subject to the disastrous history of IT procurement in the courts – be capable of keeping shorter hearings on the road over the coming weeks and months. Video-links and telephone hearings have a poor record in practice, but offer a theoretical throughroad. Penal policy will have to change; early release of low-risk prisoners, hugely reduced sentences for guilty pleas and a statutory presumption against imprisonment may not be popular, but have to be given serious consideration. By minimising the number of participants required to attend hearings, reducing prison overcrowding and ensuring the court estate is fit for human habitation, urgent court business can tick along until we are through the worst.
Justice need not – indeed cannot – stop. Urgent court business must carry on. But jury trials as we know them cannot continue. It is telling that, when it first published its “priorities” in “managing our response to coronavirus”, the Ministry of Justice included no reference at all to the welfare of those actually using the courts. On the day that the “three-day rule” was announced, Robert Buckland tweeted that he was cancelling his constituency surgery because of “the government’s social distancing advice”.
The Lord Chancellor, and Lord Chief Justice, need to afford jurors, witnesses and court professionals the same consideration, and recognise the human cost of their stance before any more lives are unnecessarily put at risk.