Justice Minister Chris Philip hints 12 jurors could be cut by five

The SEVEN ladies and gentlemen of the jury: Justice Minister Chris Philip hints 12 jurors could be cut by five to ensure social distancing when courts return to tackle backlog of 37,000 cases

  • Chris Philp was giving evidence to the Commons Justice Committee today
  • He said the right to a jury trial would remain but the jury size made be smaller
  • Mr Philp said the justice system had done ‘pretty well’ in dealing with Covid-19 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Juries could be cut back to a minimum of seven people to ensure social distancing when courts return after lockdown to tackle the huge backlog of 37,000 cases. 

Giving evidence to the Commons Justice Committee on the impact of Covid-19 on the legal system, Justice Minister Chris Philp insisted the right to a jury trial would remain.

It comes just days after Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, the most senior judge in England and Wales, had mentioned cutting the number of jurors from 12 to as low as seven.

He also conceded that trials could take place in lecture theatres or halls to abide by social distancing restrictions.

Mr Philp told MPs during a virtual meeting today: ‘There is categorically no question at all under any circumstances of the right to jury trial being removed.

Mr Phillp, pictured at Prime Minister’s Questions in January this year, conceded that trials could take place in lecture theatres or halls to abide by social distancing restrictions

‘There is some consideration being given as to if we have further emergency legislation in coronavirus, which is far from certain, indeed it is probably less likely, we might consider allowing a minimum jury size of seven rather than nine as it currently is.

‘That would require legislation, I’m not sure there will be any further legislation, to be honest.

‘But, for that aside – the possibility of a seven minimum rather than a nine – there will not be any diminution in the right to jury trial.’ 

A senior lawyer has previously suggested that all criminal trials held during the lockdown should be heard without juries.

Jury trials in the UK have ground to a halt since March, but the move has caused an increasing backlog of 37,434 cases, as of April 30, awaiting trial.

Mr Philp added that the system had done ‘pretty well’ in dealing with the emergency.

 It comes just days after Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, the most senior judge in England and Wales, is considering cutting the number of jurors from 12 to as low as seven

He told MPs: ‘I think, actually, our jurisdiction here has done pretty well in keeping functioning at a level in very difficult circumstances by contrast to much of the rest of Europe.

‘In many, if not most, European jurisdictions, the court system has shut down completely with no court cases being heard at all.’

Discussing restarting the justice system last week, Lord Burnett told the BBC: ‘There is blue-sky thinking going on at the moment. It is going to be necessary to look at more radical measures to enable jury trials to continue.

‘I would support a move to reduce the number of jurors. That was done during the Second World War. Plainly, it would be easier to ensure a safe trial for everybody, with social distancing and other precautions.’

12 jurors are required for trials in England and Wales. Northern Ireland also has a 12 juror rule except for certain terrorist offences linked to the Troubles, where it is still trial by judge. In Scotland there are 15 people on the jury.

Experts are also testing remote jury trials using online tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams (pictured)

A working group chaired by High Court judge Mr Justice Edis is looking at measures that could be taken amid calls from lawyers for ‘clean, hygienic and safe’ courtrooms.

‘The use of big venues, all of this I can assure you is already being thought about,’ continued Lord Burnett.

‘You can’t have juries sitting together cheek by jowl, you can’t have them expectorating towards each other in a tiny jury box.’

Others have said there could be advantages to measures such as virtual trials for victims giving evidence.

‘They don’t have to come to court, they don’t have to face the pomp of it, when they’re not sure what’s going on,’ Dame Vera Baird QC told the BBC.

‘They might run into the defendant, the defendant’s brother might deliberately bump into them.

‘If you can go to remote evidence somewhere in a suburban house… and give your evidence there and be cross-examined across a television link from a relatively comfortable place… then that can add a great deal of confidence to people coming forward.’ 

Amanda Pinto QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council, told the committee today that a barrister-wide survey on the possible impact to their practices of the Covid-19 emergency shutdown was ‘shocking’.

She said: ‘The results are, frankly, shocking – 56% of all barristers cannot survive six months in practice. That takes us from the date of the survey to October of this year.

‘69% of publicly-funded barristers cannot survive six months.

‘And almost 75% of young barristers, that’s those in practice for less than seven years, will not survive six months.’

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