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Remote jury trials in times of COVID-19


On March 23, 2020, jury trials in England and Wales were suspended in response to COVID-19. This was done to protect public safety as social distancing measures were difficult to implement in courtrooms. Since then, several proposals, such as remote trials, have been put forward to address how jury trials might continue, and how to tackle the backlog of crown court cases which currently stands at over 40,500.

Jury trials are used in the most serious criminal cases and are generally seen as fair, representative, and an essential part of the UK criminal justice system, which works on the presumption of innocence and that everyone has the right to a fair trial. It is vital that solutions, whether temporary or permanent, limit the chances of a miscarriage of justice and maintain public faith in the system.

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The virtual trials

Between April and July, a project looking at how remote jury trials could be designed and conducted fairly in response to COVID-19 was piloted by JUSTICE – an organization working to strengthen justice in the UK – with others including Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and Oxford Brookes University. The study explored the possibilities of conducting fair trials remotely with participants in different places and aimed to evaluate the technology, compare it with face-to-face hearings, consider issues that may give rise to legal challenges, and to evaluate lessons learned.

All mock trials were based on the same fictional case and legal roles and members of the jury were played by volunteers and invited experts. Jurors took part remotely from their homes. Including deliberation time, the trials took around half a day to complete – with parts of the process “extremely abbreviated” as described by the project team. Proceedings came together on a single screen – as you might have with a Zoom meeting – with the jury appearing in smaller boxes. The jurors, clerk, and judge had access to a private chat function where they could highlight technical issues and access relevant documents.