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Tackling safety issues and social distancing in cases with multiple defendants

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At the start of 2020, we could not have predicted how the COVID-19 pandemic would impact all aspects of life across the UK. Essential public services needed to adapt to an unprecedented set of circumstances and at HMCTS we quickly adjusted our ways of working to maintain access to justice.

As a result of the crisis, the Lord Chief Justice suspended jury trials on 23 March. Since May, when jury trials resumed, more than 3,500 trials have been listed and disposed of. We are one of the only jurisdictions worldwide to conduct jury trials during the pandemic.

This hasn’t been without challenge but as of today we now have over 250 courtrooms across 79 Crown Court sites, available for jury trials. This is in addition to the significant number of courtrooms available for non-jury trial hearings. We have also opened 17 Nightingale Courts and six of these are carrying out non-custodial jury trials across ten courtrooms. Crown Courts are now hearing thousands of cases and listing over 230 jury trials each week.

To keep all court users safe, in addition to social distancing, we have installed plexiglass screens within jury boxes in more than 400 courtrooms and jury deliberation rooms. We have also established rigorous cleaning standards throughout buildings. It is also a requirement for all court and tribunals users to wear a face covering in our buildings in England and Wales.

But, creating a COVID secure environment is harder to achieve in cases which feature multiple defendants, or ‘multi-handers’, which bring their own set of social distancing challenges. A greater number of defendants and legal professionals in a trial puts more pressure on the custody suite and on courtroom space, especially where a secure dock is needed.

How we are running ‘multi-hander’ cases during the COVID-19 pandemic

To consider how best to manage the challenges around multi-hander trials we set up a small working group to specifically look at them. The group was chaired by Mr Justice Edis, and with representatives of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Criminal Bar Association, Bar Council, Law Society and Victims’ Commissioner.

We can currently hear multi-hander trials with up to six defendants and in a small number of cases, we have been able to put in place measures to list trials which involve more defendants by using space in the well of the court, in addition to the dock and multiple courtrooms.

Clearly, the trial judge is responsible for the conduct of any trial and there are several options open to them when considering how to manage a trial. HMCTS’s role is to provide the necessary information and infrastructure to support those decisions.

Regional Heads of Crime have been discussing with Resident and Presiding Judges those cases in their regions with a view to ensuring we can provide the necessary infrastructure to hear these cases. A list of all trials involving seven or more defendants has been provided to them for consideration. Where appropriate, the CPS may consider whether to make an application to sever a case to break it into a number of smaller trials, however they will need to consider the impact on any victim or witness needing to give evidence more than once. Ultimately any decision on severance will be for the trial judge.

Another way trial judges may manage multi-hander trials is for defendants to appear by video link from prison. Using video links at prisons can enable defendants to appear by video throughout the trial. However, they will need to travel to court at the start of the trial for jury empanelment and later in order to give evidence. This happened at the Central Criminal Court in the trial of three men in relation to the death of PC Andrew Harper.

In some circumstances, it is possible to use multiple courtrooms and accommodate defendants in separate docks. In this approach, with the trial judge’s agreement, defendants are able to view proceedings in the main courtroom (where the judge and the jury sit) by video link from a different courtroom dock. They will be escorted to the main courtroom when it is time to give evidence. Doing this enabled Woolwich Crown Court to begin a seven-defendant murder trial to start on 5 October. The trial judge, court staff, PECS, and the parties’ legal representatives worked together to agree a way forward. The defendants are split between two courts and a live video link ensures both courtrooms can see and hear what is going on. Three rows of counsel benches have had plexiglass installed to increase the number of counsel that can be present in each courtroom whilst complying with social distancing. A reduced number of members of the public have access to the secure public gallery overlooking the main courtroom. A third courtroom is being used as jury accommodation.

By using three courtrooms at Nottingham Crown Court an eight-defendant murder trial was able to start on 12 October, with defendants and their legal representatives split across two courtrooms and a third courtroom being used for members of the press and public. The trial judge has allowed some defendants to appear via video link when appropriate.

Using multiple courtrooms for a trial can have implications on how many other trials a court can list at the same time. These are complex considerations that the Courts have to wrestle with and are ultimately a matter for Resident Judges.

Face coverings are offered to defendants, although the judge may ask for them to be removed in court if deemed necessary and where social distancing can be achieved. In addition, we are currently testing the use of toughened glass screens within the dock at Portsmouth Crown Court to enable four defendants to be tried in the same courtroom.

One of the quickest methods to create capacity for multi-hander trials is to make minor modifications to existing court buildings. This work is taking place now, with over 50 courtrooms being assessed for having bespoke screens or other modifications installed to increase our capacity for multi-hander trials.

I hope this update provides you with some insight to the work we are doing in HMCTS to manage multi-hander trials.  It is just one of a number of complex challenges facing the criminal justice system, and we are grateful for the support of our criminal justice partners.




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