Justice Minister Naomi Long today confirmed jury trials have recommenced in Northern Ireland for the first time since lockdown.
The first jury trial since March got underway in Laganside Court in Belfast, with plans to open five more Crown Court venues across Northern Ireland by the end of September.
The recommencement of jury trials marks the latest stage in the recovery of the justice system following the easing of restrictions put in place in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Minister Long said: “Jury trials are one of the cornerstones of our justice system and it is a hugely significant step that we are now in a position to accommodate them again.
“At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown restrictions, it was logistically impossible to hold jury trials.
“I recognise this will have been hugely frustrating and distressing for those who have been awaiting the outcome of cases. I want to reassure those impacted that everything possible has been done to get jury trials up and running in the safest and most efficient way possible.”
A number of physical alterations are being made to courtrooms to enable jury trials to proceed safely in line with the public health guidance on Covid-19.
These new measures include:
The adoption of a two court model for Crown Court trials – with one courtroom being used for hearings and another used for jury deliberation.
Physical distancing measures in the courtroom between all court participants, including between jurors, implementing the two metre rule and the use of screens where two metres is not achievable.
Physical distancing in all public waiting areas.
The provision of hand sanitisation stations at the entrances to all courts building, at all entry points into individual courtrooms and within courtrooms.
Court users entering court buildings must wear facemasks in all communal public areas like waiting areas and lobbies. A face covering may also be worn during proceedings, unless a judge directs an individual to remove it.
The Justice Minister continued: “While the last jury trial in Northern Ireland took place before lockdown, the justice system has not stood still; far from it.
“When lockdown occurred, courts and tribunals business was consolidated into five hubs to deliver urgent business. Harnessing video technology, the majority of business was dealt with either remotely or was reviewed by a judge administratively.
“While judges have been directed by the Office of the Lord Chief Justice to undertake as much courts business as possible remotely, physical court proceedings and hybrid hearings deploying courtroom video technology have also been facilitated where the requirements of fairness and justice necessitate a hearing and where it is safe to do so.
“Technology has ensured that a range of business across criminal, civil and family courts has continued to be delivered.
“Having initially consolidated business in five court hubs, the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) has been working diligently to implement accommodation and technology changes to facilitate the safe reopening of courthouses and support new ways of working.
“There has been a graduated increase in activity across the Courts and Tribunals Service estate across the summer.
“From 24th August courts will operate from 12 multiple courtroom venues dealing with criminal, civil and family cases.
“There will be capacity for 18 magistrates courts, with other courtrooms being used for Crown Court, County Court, coroners and tribunal business.
“Courts will continue to undertake as much business as possible remotely but the increased capacity will facilitate a move away from urgent and agreed business only to a focus on case progression and disposal.”
New and innovative ways of working have also been introduced right across the justice system during lockdown including:
virtual courtroom capacity has been significantly increased, with ‘Sightlink’ technology being deployed to facilitate remote hearings. This technology has been routinely used to enable defendants to appear for first remand in magistrates court via live links from PSNI custody suites. It has also enabled legal representatives, parties and witnesses to attend hearings visually.
a prototype courtroom was established in the Royal Courts of Justice to enable in-person proceedings, with a physical Court of Appeal hearing being held on 1 June. Physical, remote and hybrid hearings have since taken place in a number of courts.
The Minister confirmed: “All of these new practices are being evaluated and some new practices will be maintained as we move forward to streamline and speed up the justice system.
“A huge amount of work has gone into getting this far and I want to thank everyone in our courts and tribunals, the judiciary and across the legal profession and the wider justice family who have worked hard throughout lockdown to ensure the process of justice did not grind to a halt and continued to be delivered throughout this health crisis.”
Members of the public participating in court cases are advised to only turn up in person at court buildings if they are directed to appear.
In line with the public health guidance, should anyone due to participate in court proceedings start to exhibit symptoms of Covid-19, or if a member of their household is exhibiting symptoms, they should self-isolate and secure a Coronavirus test, ensuring their legal representatives or the court office are notified that they are self-isolating and informing them of the outcome of testing.