Courts to continue during period of extended covid restrictions, Minister confirms

Ballymena Courthouse.

JURY trials and other courts and tribunals business will continue in Northern Ireland during the period of increased restrictions announced by the Executive, Justice Minister Naomi Long confirmed.

Crown Court trials have resumed at six courthouse locations since August in the Laganside courts complex in Belfast and at Antrim, Craigavon, Newry, Coleraine and Dungannon courthouses, with coronavirus protection measures introduced to ensure all hearings proceed safely.

While most criminal, civil and family courts and tribunal business has been conducted remotely in the months since lockdown, some in-person or hybrid hearings have taken place with mitigation measures introduced in consultation with the Public Health Agency (PHA).

Minister Long noted: “Over the last number of months, the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service in conjunction with the PHA, the judiciary, members of the legal profession and other justice partners have introduced a number of measures to ensure courts business can resume safely and sustainably during the current pandemic.

“Courtrooms have been reconfigured and rebuilt, with glass and Perspex screens erected. New digital technology has been installed.

“Hand sanitation and two metre social distancing measures have been implemented for court users, defendants, witnesses, jurors, judges, legal representatives, courts staff, security staff and observers. Face coverings may be worn during proceedings, unless a judge directs an individual to remove them.

“Despite the recent surge in Covid-19 infections and the tightening of restrictions by the Executive, we are satisfied jury trials and other in-person courts and tribunals can continue because of those mitigations and recognising the essential nature of the business conducted daily in the justice system.

“Victims, complainants, defendants and witnesses are keen to see cases progress, as does everyone involved in justice. While the majority of business will continue to be conducted remotely, we are urging jurors and other participants who have been required to attend to be mindful of public safety and, especially, of the need to protect others.”

Unlike lockdown in March, when jury trials were halted and in-person hearings were consolidated into five operational hubs, the number of court venues has expanded to 15 to deal with criminal, civil and family cases and tribunals.

Up to 57 courtrooms have been made available for courts and tribunals business.

Additional cleaning measures have also been put in place to ensure all surfaces are cleaned in courtrooms after they have been used.

Citizens called for jury service are issued with guidance, in line with that provided by the PHA, urging them to not attend if they develop Covid-19 symptoms or have been advised to self-isolate.

The guidance contains a detailed checklist on how to remain safe when attending court.

Should they become ill, jurors can apply for an excusal or a deferral from jury service.

Minister Long continued: “Public safety has been a priority for the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, the judiciary and other justice partners right throughout this health emergency as they have worked hard to ensure court proceedings can be conducted safely.

“That will remain the case in the weeks ahead, with the focus on ensuring business can proceed only if it is safe to do so.

“Jurors and other members of the public taking part in in-person or hybrid court or tribunal hearings also have a role to play. We ask them to follow the public health guidelines and do their bit to protect themselves and others at home, in wider society and also in our courts and tribunals.”

Ballymena Magistrates Court is currently being held in Antrim Courthouse and Coleraine Magistrates Court is being held in Ballymena.

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