Coronavirus: First socially distanced trial begins in Belfast

Back of a lawyer's head

Northern Ireland’s first socially-distanced trial began in Belfast on Wednesday in a specially-adapted courtroom.

Court business has been impacted by the current Covid-19 pandemic with no trials having been held in the Crown Court since March.

A series of adjustments and adaptations were made to the biggest court within Laganside Court Complex.

A jury of 12 members were sworn in and the court was able to proceed.

The Justice Minister Naomi Long said that from Monday, 12 court venues will be operational across Northern Ireland although a large proportion of court business will continue remotely using video technology.

Mrs Long said: “Jury trials are one of the cornerstones of our justice system and it is a hugely significant step that we are now in a position to accommodate them again.

“At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown restrictions, it was logistically impossible to hold jury trials.

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Dept of Justice

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The Justice Minister Naomi Long says 12 court buildings will reopen

“I recognise this will have been hugely frustrating and distressing for those who have been awaiting the outcome of cases.”

The adaptations to Court 12, where today’s trial was sitting, are designed to ensure safety and social distancing.

Pre-Covid, the jury box was located at the side of the court and consisted of two rows of benches seating six people per row.

As this would not fall within social distancing guidelines, the jury’s seating has now been moved to the centre of the court – the area which used to be occupied by barristers and solicitors.

The area has been divided into six separate sections using glass screens, with each section seating two jurors, who are spaced apart.

Before the pandemic, one Bible was passed round the jury for those who wished to take the oath.

However, on Wednesday, all jurors were supplied with their own Bible and bottle of hand sanitiser.

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A total of 11 out of the 12 people people sworn onto the jury today chose to swear an oath on the Bible.

They were asked to remove the Bible from a plastic covering, and after making their oath, each juror was then addressed by a court official who said: “Can I ask you to now sanitise your hands. Thank you.”

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PA Media

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Jurors were each provided with their own bible and hand sanitizer

The wearing of facemasks in courts is optional, and while some jurors wore masks which they kept on throughout the hearing, others didn’t.

‘Things look a bit different’

This was touched upon by Judge Stephen Fowler QC prior to the trial starting.

He addressed the jury and said: “I’m sure you are all well aware things look a bit different in this courtroom than they would normally look in a courtroom … you are in a different location than would normally be the case … and that’s because of the present medical emergency in this country.

“We have adjusted and adapted the courtroom to ensure your safety and ensure compliance with social distancing.

“You have available to you hand sanitiser and you will be, on occasion, asked by staff to sanitise your hands before touching or receiving items in court.

“All these measures are taken to ensure the safety of yourself and all other court users in this building.

“I see a number of you are wearing masks. They are not mandatory within the court and if you are comfortable wearing them, I have no difficulty with that.”

BBC News