People with hearing impairments or other disabilities may be allowed to serve on juries in England and Wales for the first time under proposals being considered by the justice secretary, Robert Buckland. It’s part of a plan to allow juries to sit remotely — even when there is no longer any need for social distancing.
Buckland’s ideas are inspired by the pandemic but are intended to outlast Covid-19. He outlined his proposals in an interview broadcast this afternoon on the BBC Radio 4 programme Law in Action, now available online.
Because of the need for social distancing, some court proceedings in Scotland are now transmitted on a secure two-way video link to juries sitting in distant cinema complexes. Jurors consider the evidence and deliver their verdicts without having to visit the court where the hearing is taking place.
Similar experiments have been carried out successfully in England and Wales by the campaign group Justice. Robert Buckland, the lord chancellor, told me that allowing juries to sit remotely would improve geographical diversity and enrich the involvement of juries:
And of course, it can increase access for jurors with disabilities. There is more work I want to do to support deaf jurors and to get them involved in the process.
As the law now stands, it’s not possible for a deaf juror to bring a sign-language interpreter into the jury retirement room. That’s something the lord chancellor wants parliament to change, he said:
Making sure that perhaps that person with a hearing impairment had somebody with them in order to interpret for example, would be a very sensible way in which we can increase accessibility, and recognise the fact that, like all great institutions, a bit of evolution is not a bad thing
But any change to the jury system in England and Wales will require careful consideration by parliament. I asked Robert Buckland to confirm that there would be no change in the availability of jury trial. His commitment sounded less than absolute:
That is right, with the fullest of discussion and consultation. And I also want to make sure that our court system works in a unified way, so that we have the right judges dealing with cases at the right time, and that we make sure that whilst no erosion should happen to the right to jury trial, that cases are dealt with at the appropriate level in the interest of justice.
The lord chancellor’s reference to cases being heard at the appropriate level may lead some people to think he is suggesting that middle-ranking cases — where a defendant is currently entitled to choose trial by jury — would be dealt with only by magistrates in future. But perhaps I am reading too much into his answer. We’ll have a better idea when we see the government’s proposed legislation.