Over the last few weeks, Corker Binning has been assisting JUSTICE in piloting the first ever virtual mock jury trials for possible use in England and Wales and elsewhere in the world where juries sit in criminal cases. On 6 May 2020, JUSTICE will conduct its third mock virtual jury trial which will focus on how to recreate the formality of the court, and the procedures that contribute toward it.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the suspension of all new jury trials since 23 March 2020, and no restart date for those trials has been set.
Without new trials, the impact on those affected is profound. No jury trials means people in prison face an indefinite extension to their restriction of liberty. It means those on bail face an indefinite extension to uncertainty over their future. And it means victims face a longer wait for justice.
With it appearing likely that social distancing measures, of some form, will be required to remain in place well into 2021 to mitigate risk to public health, it is clear that a solution needs to be found to enable trials to start again.
With there already being a crippling backlog of trials yet to be held, this solution needs to come as soon as possible and Corker Binning is pleased to have been working in collaboration with JUSTICE on a project which could form at least part of the solution to this very serious problem for our criminal justice system.
As of 4 May 2020, we have helped to conduct two pilot trials, with Of Counsel Anna Rothwell and Trainee Solicitor Robert Hanratty taking on roles as jury member and defendant, respectively. We also introduced the world class video technology experts AVMI to this project who have many years of experience providing technology for UK criminal trials.
These pilots have been evaluated by independent academics Professor Linda Mulcahy and Dr Emma Rowden in a report entitled Virtual jury trials during COVID-19.
The use of video platforms in courts is not new. Vulnerable witnesses and overseas witnesses regularly give evidence on video links. And, in these extraordinary times, we at Corker Binning have seen that virtual jury trials offer a readily workable solution.
As with any new solution, further tests are needed, concerns about privacy need to be addressed and full protocols are yet to be established. But, based on initial feedback in the first two pilot trials, some participants have even said that they are better able to see and hear each other than they otherwise would usually be able to in court.
Indeed, a virtual trial is certainly not the solution to every case. But with a little investment in technology, virtual trials are the quickest, fairest and most effective way to help us tackle the crisis the justice system faces as a result of the pandemic. The most serious cases and multi handed cases would not be suitable for a virtual jury but there may well need to be a combination of measures to save the system from collapse.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland QC has said he is “extremely interested” in solutions such as virtual trials. There are encouraging signs that the justice system is willing to embrace a technological solution to the problem of the lengthening backlog, we are proud to be working with JUSTICE to meet the new challenge Covid-19 now poses.
Over May and beyond, we will keep you posted on this work progresses and what other proposals may be put forward.