Criminal trials which are due to last longer than three days will be put on hold due to the spread of coronavirus.
The move by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett – the most senior judge in England and Wales – affects those cases that were set to start before the end of April. They will now be postponed.
Any current trials will continue as it is hoped they can still be completed.
The government has been under pressure to outline its strategy for the legal system, following concerns about how COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, could spread and affect court business.
There are reports of jurors dropping out of cases due to self-isolating, or coming to court when they should have stayed away, putting the health of others at risk.
Criminal trials pose “particular problems in a fast-moving situation” because of the involvement of many participants including the judge, jurors, defendants, lawyers, witnesses and court staff, according to a statement announcing the latest decision.
For other court hearings, like family and magistrates’ courts, where no jurors are involved, steps are being taken to make sure as many hearings as possible take place – with some or all of those involved attending by telephone, videolink or online.
The statement read: “Given the risks of a trial not being able to complete, the Lord Chief Justice has decided that no new trial should start in the crown court unless it is expected to last for three days or less.
“All cases estimated to last longer than three days listed to start before the end of April 2020 will be adjourned.
“These cases will be kept under review and the position regarding short trials will be revisited as circumstances develop and in any event next week.
“As events unfold decisions will be taken in respect of all cases awaiting trial in the crown court.”
Earlier on Tuesday, organisations that represent lawyers called for jury trials to be halted and said the risks of them continuing were “too great”.
The Bar Council’s chairwoman Amanda Pinto QC said: “Being in a jury trial should not be a game of Russian roulette with the participants’ health.”