Coronavirus: Criminal trial backlog equates to half a year’s cases

Courts Service is looking at use of non-court buildings to allow for social distancing

A courtroom in the Criminal Courts of Justice complex in Dublin. Photograph: Collins Courts

A courtroom in the Criminal Courts of Justice complex in Dublin. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

The backlog of criminal trials in the Circuit Court due to the coronavirus crisis now equals about half the number of cases that would be heard in an average year, the Courts Service has said.

No criminal trials have begun at Circuit Court level since March, and the first trials are not likely to begin until September at the earliest.

The Courts Service is looking at the use of non-court buildings in an effort to get a crucial element of the criminal justice system working again while still observing social-distancing rules.

The Circuit Court hears all non-minor criminal offences except for murder, rape and aggravated sexual assault, which are heard in the Central Criminal Court.

In a normal year, “approximately 400 trials are heard annually nationwide, with over a quarter of these in Dublin”, a spokesman for the Courts Service said.

Trials will proceed from the end of August in an effort to tackle the build-up of cases, the spokesman said. The Circuit Court normally breaks from end of July to early October.

“We estimate we have 273 matters which will go to trial before Circuit Courts outside Dublin, and 155 matters which will go to trial before Dublin Circuit Court,” the spokesman said.

“It should be noted that these figures are estimates of how many indictments will be resolved by way of trial – either a conviction by jury or an acquittal by jury or by direction of the trial judge,” he added.

In Dublin the Criminal Courts of Justice complex has 19 courtrooms that can accommodate 25 people or more while observing social distancing.

These courts are shared by the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Central Criminal Court, the Special Criminal Court, the Circuit Court, and the District Court. Four courtrooms are available for criminal trials at Central Criminal and Circuit court level.

The spokesman said the main “pinch points” that have been identified by the Courts Service include: that empanelling a jury has (up to now) involved bringing large numbers into the courts building; the need to accommodate at least 25 people in a room - given that a judge, registrar, accused, victim, witness, jury, jury minder, six lawyers, a Garda and a representative of the media all need to be in attendance; and the need to provide a deliberation room for the 12-member jury.

Jury problem

No jury room in the Criminal Courts of Justice complex can accommodate 12 jurors while observing the social-distancing guidelines. “Courtrooms will be needed to be used for the jurors to meet and deliberate,” the spokesman said. New arrangements are also being looked at for the empanelling of juries.

In the District Court, which is the court that hears the vast bulk of each year’s civil and criminal court cases, there are 90,000 people waiting to have their cases heard between now and the end of the year, the spokesman said.

“Over 90,000 defendants have either a case listed, scheduled, deferred, awaiting to be scheduled, or are estimated to be charged in court before Christmas. This does not include adjournments of these cases.”

Usually all parties involved in a case before the District Court on a particular day are asked to turn up at 10.30am, meaning that up to 150 people can gather for a day’s hearings.

The service is now implementing staggered lists to reduce the numbers gathering in court premises, and is also making use of video links to deal with matters, the spokesman said.

While the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, where witness evidence is not an issue, are dealing with their caseloads using remote hearings, the situation in the High Court is varied.

Some types of High Court cases are capable of being heard remotely, while others can be heard if special measures are put in place. However, cases that involve witnesses and more than one set of defendants are proving particularly difficult to hear.