By Poppy Morandin & Jimmy Singh.
With COVID-19 related restrictions easing and business seemingly returning to normal for most of New South Wales, the District Court has begun criminal trials before juries again.
The return will be done under strict measures including temperature checks and screening questions for jurors, in order to prevent individuals with cold or flu like symptoms being present in court.
Jurors will be seated around the court room, with some in the public gallery rather than all within the jury box, to account for social distancing measures.
This return will be limited to Sydney’s Downing Centre, Parramatta and Newcastle.
During restrictions, the courts have been able to utilise virtual technology for appeals, bail applications, and judge alone trials, with around 500 matters heard weekly.
“Virtual court” was decided not to be a compatible mode for jury trials.
“The problem was how to get the jurors to look in virtually” said Chief Judge of the NSW District Court Justice Derek Price.
“With a jury trial you need the presence of the accused [and] the prosecutor and defence lawyer need to direct jury attention to evidence and aspects of the case.”
More than 160 District Court jury trials have been delayed since COVID-19 related restrictions halted them.
Similar delays have been faced by the Supreme Court, with jury trials set to resume June 29.
Judges have estimated that it may take a year to get criminal caseloads back under control.
Many NSW judges will now work through their usual summer break to combat such backlog.
“The delays are unfortunate, for a person, particularly one who is in jail awaiting trial to have this hanging over their head for longer is problematic and it also effects victims who want closure – but it’s largely unavoidable.” said Kieran Ginges, criminal law barrister.
The temporary suspension has created a “significant problem for the court” commented Justice Price
“I said to the Bar, there are people in custody presumed to be innocent, so what do we do?”
In May, Attorney General Mark Speakman said that “restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic had necessarily delayed jury trials as the justice system adapted to the social distancing we need to beat the coronavirus.”
“Jury service is one of the most important rights and responsibilities we have as members of the community and is central to ensuring fair trials” he continued.
Sydney’s Downing Centre has had recent renovations, with walls knocked down in order to expand the jury room and thus account for social distancing.
Previous to COVID-19 the Downing Centre would hold around 350 jurors a day on average but moving forward this number will likely be less than 100.
Tracey Hall, NSW Sheriff explains: “Ample provision of hand sanitiser, readily available wash stations, increased commercial cleaning and individualised meals will also help prevent contamination.”
“Selection of jurors and appearance of other parties in the case will be by audio-visual link and a strict cap will be applied to the numbers of people permitted in the courtroom”.
“People might be scared but we are doing everything we can and putting everything in place to create a safe environment.”