Coronavirus: Court hearings and trials slow to a trickle

Adjournments and jury member absences bring legal system activity to a near-halt

Criminal Courts of Justice on Parkgate Street:  the wheels of justice were  all but still. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Criminal Courts of Justice on Parkgate Street: the wheels of justice were all but still. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

There was no problem obeying the social distancing rules at midday on Wednesday in the Round Hall of the Four Courts in Dublin, but only because there were so few there.

Two groups of three men stood chatting about High Court cases. One group stood two metres apart, like the three points of an equilateral triangle. The other trio stood in a traditional Four Courts, pre-coronavirus, huddle.

On a bench to one side a young woman was scribbling in a notebook, her mouth covered by a sky-blue surgical mask. The large domed hall was otherwise empty.

There were just two lawyers, two reporters and the father of the child plaintiff in Court No 1 when Mr Justice Kevin Cross was told of a €12 million settlement in a personal injuries case.

In Court No 4, a ward of court case before the president, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, was quickly dealt with, with just seven people present in the large courtroom. Other cases scheduled for the morning had been adjourned remotely.

Hotel case

In Court No 3, Ms Justice Leonie Reynolds listened to Padraic Lyons address the court about a case involving a number of parties associated with the River House Hotel, on Eustace Street, in Dublin’s Temple Bar.

The full hearing was to go ahead next week. However, it was set aside as the business, which included a bar and nightclub, closed at the weekend because of the coronavirus crisis.

The closure meant the dispute over whether the operators of the hotel, bar and night venue should vacate the premises because the landlord wanted them out, was now moot. One of the parties is in self-isolation, the court heard.

Most of the other courts in the famous courts building were closed, though over in Court 25, on Chancery Place, four senior counsel and four junior counsel engaged in legal argument before Mr Justice Bernard Barton, in the absence of the jury, in a defamation case now in its seventh week.

Down in the Criminal Courts of Justice, on Parkgate Street, the wheels of justice were similarly all but becalmed.

Social distancing

Signs on the doors of the rooms where the District Court was sitting asked family members and friends of those before the court to wait not just outside the room but outside the building.

Staff estimated the level of business was just 5 per cent of the norm, and perhaps even lower, as many cases are now being automatically adjourned by judges.

In the Central Criminal Court, the trial of a man accused of murdering his wife – which had been ready to hear closing speeches – was abandoned after Judge Eileen Creedon was told that three of the 12 jurors could not attend.

One juror would probably never be in a position to attend, while the availability of the other two was unknown and would not become clear for at least a week. A new trial will now have to take place at a later date.

Staff at the Dublin District Family Court in Dolphin House in Temple Bar said the level of business was approximately 5 per cent of what would be usual, with barring-order and protection-order cases still needing to be heard.