The Ministry of Justice is working to see how jury trials can be brought back into action amid the Covid-19 crisis, the Justice Secretary has confirmed.
Speaking in a private discussion with the Justice Committee which was subsequently reported in a summarised note provided after the evidence session, Robert Buckland QC MP confirmed that the Ministry is keen to reinstate jury trials which have been suspended since Monday 23 March on the direction of the Lord Chief Justice.
The committee hearing with Buckland had taken place online and behind closed doors due to, what committee chair Sir Robert Neill told the Society of Editors, was “technical and staffing reasons” that meant the House of Commons could not provide a full slate of normally broadcast and transcribed meetings this week.
Speaking during the session, the Justice Secretary confirmed that work was being done to see how to bring jury trials back into action.
Buckland responded: “Work was being done to see how to bring them back into action, but social distancing would have to be observed. A number of courts had managed that during trials, with jurors seated in different parts of the courtroom and retiring to other courtrooms, which demonstrated what was possible. HMCTS’ decision to consolidate the number of open courts to under half the normal number had been welcome, meaning the courts could concentrate on making those centres the focus of attention for being clean, open and, potentially, used for future jury trials. Much thinking was being done on whether further measures were needed on jury trials, given that the crisis was of uncertain duration.”
Buckland was also questioned on how hearings conducted by digital means are working in practice. Anecdotal experience suggested that evidence taken that way was not of the best quality, said committee member Sarah Dines.
Buckland confirmed that case hearings were continuing with the majority now taking place remotely by digital-means.
The summary reads: “In general, apart from problem of jury trials, which had many moving parts and were virtually impossible to conduct remotely, the work of courts was proceeding in novel, transformative ways. Privilege of discussions was being maintained, and justice being seen to be done. There had been a tenfold rise in the number of cases dealt with by phone or video and latest figures showed that 3,000 cases had been done that way, with 500 done directly.”
Moving forward, Buckland echoed the Society’s concerns in relation to private hearings.
The summary said: ‘Robert Buckland said he would be available whenever the Committee wished to ask questions. He also hoped it would be possible soon to do so in public meetings, being as keen as the Committee was to hear these things in public. Private hearings were not wanted; everyone wanted the public to be able to listen to them and digest what was said.’
The Society had written to Sir Robert to outline its concerns that the private discussion with Buckland on the effects of Covid-19 on the legal system would not be sufficiently transparent. Sir Robert said that while he echoed the Society’s concerns in relation to the “potential loss of the principles of openness and scrutiny” in holding private meetings, “it seemed better to proceed imperfectly rather than not at all in holding the Justice Secretary to account”. A full unredacted summary of the meeting would be published online after the session and tweets would take place during the discussions, Sir Robert confirmed.
The increase in video technology in the courts has also been acknowledged by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) Chief Executive Susan Acland-Hood who confirmed that the use of such technology had gone up by 800% in two weeks.
She said: “In just two weeks, there has been an 800% increase in the number of hearings held using such equipment and there are now more fully video hearings each day than those taking place in person. There’s more to do to make sure we have the right arrangements, technology and skills in every bit of the system to do this as well as we can – and we’re continuing to work on upgrading the systems we’re using, and learning rapidly from what’s been done so far.”
Acland-Hood called on court users and practitioners to get in touch if they had any questions or concerns about arrangements in place.
She added: “There will be many questions from practitioners and court users about the arrangements we have put in place, and I want us to ensure that we are doing all we can to address and answer them.
“Please use the comments function below to ask us questions and we’ll provide answers to those that focus on the operational running of our courts and tribunals at this time. As things are moving quickly, we’ll keep this open for the next 24 hrs and will consolidate questions if we get lots on the same theme.”
The summarised note of the meeting with Justice Secretary Robert Buckland can be found here.