All jury trials in England and Wales are to be put on hold as part of ongoing efforts to halt the spread of Covid-19.
In a statement on Monday, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, said no new trials will start and ongoing trials will be paused while arrangements are put in place so they can continue safely.
Lord Burnett, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said arrangements have been made to conduct as many hearings as possible remotely.
He added HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is “working round the clock” on these new measures.
Juries summoned for this week will be released if possible, before they arrive at court.
Earlier last week, Lord Burnett said no new trials expected to last three days or more would go ahead amid the deepening coronavirus crisis.
But, as pressure from members of the legal profession mounted on the Government to halt court hearings, the extraordinary step of suspending all new trials was taken.
Lord Burnett said: “As the Prime Minister has been telling the country, the spread of Covid-19 has continued to accelerate.
“The clear message from Government is to take all precautions to avoid unnecessary contact.
“A review of the arrangements in our courts is called for.
“I have decided that we need to pause jury trials for a short time to enable appropriate precautions to be put in place.”
But he said some hearings, “the most obvious being jury trials”, could not be carried out remotely.
He said: “Today, no new trials are to start. Jurors summoned for this week are to be released, if possible without entering the building, and told that they will be asked to return for trials where specific arrangements to ensure safety have been put in place.
“All other hearings in the Crown Court that can lawfully take place remotely should do so.”
The judge said jury trials which have already started should continue if possible, with strict social distancing procedures “at all times and at all places within the court building”.
He also said ongoing trials must be adjourned, if necessary, to allow these safety measures to be put in place.
Lord Burnett said the same considerations will apply to Magistrates’ Courts, which will need to continue to deal with urgent work, and that hearings should take place remotely if the facilities exist.
Regarding the civil and family courts, where some hearings were held over Skype last week, he said physical hearings should only take place if a remote hearing is not possible and if suitable safety arrangements can be made.
Lord Burnett said the guidance would be updated as events continue to unfold.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded to a question about courts during a press briefing on Sunday, saying: “Firstly, on the courts quickly, many courts are already using video trials, using remote technology to do their business, but we are keeping that under constant review.”
Earlier on Sunday, Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive officer of HMCTS, referred to jurors being included in the list of key workers published at the end of last week in response to a query on Twitter.
She added that advice to jurors was: “Don’t come if you are vulnerable, or showing symptoms. But otherwise, do come – because justice is not optional.”
But a number of members of the legal profession said the courts should not keep running amid the crisis.
Joanna Hardy, a criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers tweeted: “Put simply – jury trials involve people coming to court."
Mukul Chawla QC, a partner at BCLP Law and former criminal barrister, tweeted: “After today’s PM briefing and the fundamental importance of social distancing, it is simply unfathomable that the courts are still requiring jurors to attend court.
“They should be told in clear and uncertain terms to stay at home.”
On Friday, the Young Legal Aid Lawyers group released a statement calling for immediate action to protect junior legal aid lawyers including “immediately (ceasing) all in-person court hearings”.
The group added: “Unless urgent action is taken, there will be a serious impact on vulnerable people who desperately need legal advice and representation at this time.”