COVID Trial Diary by Oliver Renton
I awake with a sense of nervous excitement. Save for a single appearance in person at court, for sentence in respect of a tragic automotive homicide, I have not set foot in a courtroom for over three months. I am acutely aware that I am one of a tiny number to have had the good fortune of having a case listed for trial at all. I had been lucky previously to be in one of the last trials to have limped on into lockdown, before collapsing after three and a half days’ jury retirement.
Today I had been due to begin a single defendant trial on allegations of attempted murder. The case had just the right combination of characteristics – a single defendant, a victim travelling from out of London to attend, limited challenge to the facts, relatively few witnesses – to persuade the list office to give it space for trial.
After a surprisingly pleasant journey along the Central Line, carriage mostly to myself, slowly getting used to the face mask, I arrived at the Old Bailey. The sense of excitement was now mingling with something like relief. Relief to be back to something like normality. Relief to be handing my mantle of primary school teacher back over to professionals. Relief to think, maybe just maybe, about meeting mortgage payments and tax obligations by year end.
Through security, no longer the luxury of the professional entry scheme, but a smooth and safe feeling security process, absent frisking or wands. The building still eerily empty.
Rapidly it became clear that there was no court available to hear the trial. Not just yet. We needed to await the conclusion of another trial, including verdicts. Each trial is currently utilising two courtrooms, one for the purposes of the trial and one as the jury room, in order to enable social distancing. I understand that other court centres currently require the use of three courtrooms per trial.
I had previously sought on behalf of the defendant, a man with a long standing diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, the assistance of an intermediary to assist with his communications difficulties. There was the need for case management (isn’t there always) and for a Ground Rules hearing (a hearing wherein the Judge sets rules in order to ensure that a vulnerable participant can participate properly in the trial). There was a need, in advance of such a hearing, to take detailed instructions alongside the intermediary, in order properly to understand the defendant’s specific communications needs. So to the cells.
Steps have clearly been taken to try to ensure a modicum of social distancing in the custody suite. There are occasional stickers on the floor – stand there, move there. Alas, custody suites are not designed with cat swinging in mind. It is never possible to pass someone within the close labyrinthine corridors whilst ensuring any significant degree of social distance. Both my intermediary and I have brought our face masks with us. None of the custody staff are wearing them. Those bringing the defendant to court from hospital are, occasionally. I commence a conference wearing a mask, before concluding that it may be problematic to take instructions from one prone to paranoid delusions with my face covered. Fortunately, our conference room is large enough to allow a good space between the three of us. Lucky there’s no divergence of expert opinion on the aerosol transmission of this bug…
Lunchtime presents a very different bar mess. Tables are set around the room at careful distances, each with a single chair. The café is closed and unmanned. Some enterprising soul has set coffee making facilities in corner, but no fridge for the lactose dependent. A few, slightly lost looking souls drift around, blinking at their luck to be working. Tales of lockdown mingle with the usual peacocking. Something similar to, but definitely not quite, normality.
We leave court with no real sense as to when our trial is to commence. A Ground Rules hearing is set for Wednesday. Trial, perhaps, to start the following day. Fingers crossed. Slope back in an empty tube carriage. Mask still feeling odd. Home.
Awake. Realise that number one offspring goes to school today. The sun breaks through the clouds. A chorus of heavenly voices erupts into song.
Walk number one offspring to school and number two offspring to childminder. Home. Contemplate prepping once again for trial. Spend several hours without children.
Back to court. More nervous elation, wondering whether today may be the day that we get a courtroom for trial.
Ground Rules hearing conducted. All sensible and respectful. Orders made to help the defendant participate in and understand the proceedings.
No news on the question of a court for trial. We are to continue to liaise with the list office. We may start the trial tomorrow. I ask whether we should come to court on the off chance, just in case a jury return with verdicts. We are told that, absent verdicts today, there will be no court available tomorrow, as it takes a full day to deep clean the courtrooms.
Home on a nearly empty tube. Face mask still feels odd, but maybe slightly less so.
Email from the court – no trial tomorrow. Stand down. Maybe Friday.
Awake. Realise that number one offspring is not going to school today. One last session of PE with Joe. Resume the position as primary school teacher. Much clock watching.
Email received from the court – we are to empanel a jury tomorrow!
To court. Tube still comfortable and feeling relatively safe, but busier. Starting to get used to the face mask. Arrive at court, to a queue halfway down the road. A separate queue has been set up for counsel, that everyone remains too polite to use until invited so to do by security.
We are introduced to the new court layout. We are in Court 16, one of the large new courtrooms. Counsel now sit within the jury box. The jury sit, spread out, on the three rows within the well of court (formerly counsel’s row). The configuration feels surprisingly natural, affording us a better view of the jury than usual and a fine view of the witness box and Judge. From a defence perspective, the fact that the jury are sitting with their backs to the defendant in the dock is no bad thing.
Jury selection is a more cumbersome than usual. It is preceded by all parties leaving court into the foyer, where a large pool of jurors sits, carefully spaced. A microphone awaits the Judge, who gives initial introductions and directions to the pool in a manner oddly reminiscent of a bewigged tour guide. Prosecution counsel takes over the microphone to read a list of names relevant to the case. I am asked to give a small bow.
Thereafter jury selection takes on a more recognisable form, albeit requiring the usher to wander out of court to collect each named juror individually. The usual reservations are voiced about the grumbles of employers. 14 jurors are selected and sent home to consult employers, spouses and diaries.
The bit of the weekend that gets used to prepare for Monday.
To court. Central Line getting noticeably busier now. Still pretty comfortable. Still a fair bit of space. Many sidelong, passive-aggressive glances at those refusing to wear face coverings.
Arrive at the Bailey. Genuine delight to be getting back into the saddle. More bodies around the building this week, though still quiet. Arrows on the stairs inviting a one way system. Very few people apparently noticing or observing them. Enough bodies starting to mill around the robing room and bar mess to foment something like the usual banter.
To trial. A pretty harrowing case, but my opponent and I agree entirely that it is good to be back. Already, lockdown seems strangely unreal, far longer ago than it was. There will be the inevitable video link disasters ahead, unrealistic time estimates and the creeping miasma of chaos that permeates the mid-COVID landscape, but we thank our lucky stars. In this small corner of the Bailey, the wheels of justice begin to turn once more.