Warwick Crown Court has become the first crown court in the Midlands to begin hearing trials again following the easing of the Covid-19 lockdown rules.
All jury trials at courts throughout the country were halted, with no new trials starting, from March 23 as part of the efforts to stem the flow of the deadly virus.
Last week the Old Bailey in London, together with crown courts in Cardiff, Manchester and Bristol, began to hear trials again.
And, after visits from senior members of the judiciary to assess its suitability to host socially distanced cases, Warwick Crown Court at the Warwickshire Justice Centre in Leamington is the first Midlands court to resume hearing trials.
But as the first one began, the trial of a barman accused of inflicting grievous bodily harm on a trouble-making customer, it was clear things were very different to what they were before the lockdown.
Firstly, with the prosecution and defence barristers sitting at opposite ends of the jury box, 14 potential jurors were ushered into court individually and instructed to stand on numbered footprint markers socially distanced around the court.
And Judge Anthony Potter then explained to them: “The empanelment procedure is going to be rather different.
“In the old days before the 20th of March, if your name was read out I would be instructing you to follow the directions into a seat.
“But you are standing on stickers which ensure you are two metres apart, and you will be taking an affirmation stood on the spot where you are.
“We are then going to invite you to retire, and the two who have not been chosen will be diverted one way and the 12 who have been chosen will be diverted to another court which will be used as your retiring room.”
The 12 jurors, one of them wearing a face mask, were then selected and read the affirmation to ‘faithfully try the defendant and give true verdict according to the evidence’ from a large TV screen, rather than having the option of swearing on a bible.
Ushers then led all 14 out in reverse order, with the 12 being taken to an adjacent courtroom where they were given further directions before being brought back into court.
They were again ushered in one-by-one – and directed to numbered seats on the front and back rows of the benches where the lawyers normally sit, as well as other socially-distanced seats on that side of the courtroom.
Judge Potter told them: “That process has taken rather longer than it would have before the 20th of March. It is to ensure you can safely try this case.
“We live in interesting times. Having not presided over a jury trial since early March, it would be odd if I did not address any possible concerns you have.
“I begin by thanking you for undertaking your jury service. It is an important public duty, the continuation of trial by jury is particularly important.
“This trial concerns events dating back to December 2018. It is particularly important that incidents that form the basis of prosecutions are dealt with in a timely fashion.”
The judge observed that they had been told by court staff of measures which had been put in place to ensure their safety, and he told them: “It is obviously important that you follow the guidance you have received to ensure that you can safely undertake your jury service.
“Your seats are all an appropriate distance from each-other. You must remain seated in those sets unless you are required to move by an usher. There are markings on the floor. Again, I encourage you to keep your chairs on those markings.
“One of your number has chosen to wear a facemask. Masks are available if any of you require them, as are protective gloves, and each of you has been provided with hand sanitiser.”
And he pointed out: “This courtroom is one of very few select courts which have been carefully inspected with a view to restarting jury trials.”
The chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Caroline Goodwin QC has praised the way the court has prepared for resuming trials, commenting: “The staff are like a well oiled machine.