'Blue-sky' thinking is underway to allow jury trials to resume safely but big changes are expected

Updated: May 1, 2020

Coronavirus could prompt the biggest changes to jury trials since World War Two, the head of judiciary in England and Wales said.

During the Second World War, the Administration of Justice (Emergency Provisions) Act 1939 authorised trials with only seven jurors, except for treason or murder

Social distancing could mean fewer jurors at trials and sittings moved to bigger buildings such as university lecture theatres, said Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett. Jury trials across the UK were halted in March due to the virus. Lord Burnett said that discussions were ongoing about resuming them. If social distancing lasts for months, Lord Burnett warned: "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."

Why the number of jurors were cut during World War II The Administration of Justice (Emergency Provisions) Act 1939 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that modified the law in England and Wales with regards to juries in England and Wales.

It was an emergency measure passed in anticipation of war with Germany, and received royal assent on the day that Germany invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War.

The measure reduced the number of people required to serve on a jury in civil or criminal cases from twelve to seven (except in the most serious criminal cases). It also raised the age limit for jury service from 60 to 65.

Courts facing huge backlog

Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said he was "extremely interested" in finding practical solutions, like reducing the number of jurors and virtual trials, as these could deliver "more immediate results" in getting jury trials going again.

Jury trials involve at least 20 people. Currently, 12 jurors sit in trials in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 15 in Scotland.

Lord Burnett believes any resumption soon would require identifying "very large courtrooms where it's possible to envisage participants maintaining social distancing.

Under lockdown, cases are backing up in a system that already has delays caused in part by the government reducing Crown Court sitting days in England and Wales. By the end of 2019 the number of outstanding cases had reached 37,434, official figures show.