Criminal Jury Trial Management during Covid-19

For the duration of social distancing measures and public health guidelines, the criminal justice system in Ireland will have to adapt to the ‘new normal’. Over the past few weeks, discussions have taken place regarding the impact of public health guidelines on an individual’s constitutional right to trial by jury for non-minor offences. The Bar Council and Courts Service have been examining this issue and considering how to resume jury trials in the context of ongoing social distancing regulations.

Previously, there had been suggestions that ordinary criminal trials should take place without juries or with a smaller number of jurors during the COVID-19 emergency. However, these suggestions have been rejected by The Bar of Ireland: “We are of the view that it is a safeguard in our democracy which should only be interfered with when entirely necessary and after all other proportionate measures have been considered and/or attempted and proven to be ineffective.”

The Chairman of the Bar Council has advised that the administrative challenges relating to the empanelment of juries in criminal trials are not insurmountable, although this will result in a big change to the normalities of the legal world.

Some key recommendations in relation to this matter are as follows:

  • Convening potential jurors in larger nearby spaces such as theatres and/or nearby hotel ballrooms so that they can be brought to the Courts in smaller groups at staggered intervals.
  • Selecting jury members from the jury pool in a larger venue near the Court with the judge, Registrar and legal practitioners attending that venue and only the selected jurors would reconvene in the courtroom for the trial.
  • Jury boxes could be reconfigured to hold fewer people, with remaining jurors spread around the court room.

Further, the progression of video link facilities that have been introduced to cope with the current difficulties, may also be used as a sufficient mechanism for empanelling juries hereafter.

While the above recommendations are necessary under current social distancing rules and for the safety of all involved, it remains to be seen whether these may prove successful in practice.