The Supreme Court held one trial in December and a murder trial began this week. Over the road in the County Court, 13 trials were initiated in December, another 16 are scheduled this month and five are currently running.
Victoria is nothing like Scotland, where jurors have been sitting in cinemas to watch a trial unfold on the big screen, but things do look a little different.
In the Supreme Court, jurors have been moved from the jury box on the side of the court to the body of the court to sit at spaced-out, school-like desks complete with sanitiser and privacy screens. The screens are to stop the lawyers or the accused from inadvertently seeing what jurors are writing down as the trial progresses.
The lawyers, who usually sit at the bar table before the judge, have been elevated to the jury box and, unlike over the road in the County Court, the barristers can take off their masks while they’re talking.
The County Court has also been busyt with renovations. The jury box has been widened to allow for more space between each seat and jury selection has also changed.
The court hosts a virtual jury pool and empanelment is restricted to up to 30 people in a room, with each juror required to walk up to a camera and unmask, allowing for lawyers and the accused to see their face and challenge their prospective place on the jury if they want to.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd said establishing a safe way to resume jury trials was vital for justice and part of the courts’ ongoing adaptation during the pandemic.
“So far, we believe the changes are working well and thank everyone involved for their patience and flexibility, particularly those taking themselves away from their everyday activities and attending jury service,” they said.
“While we are not able to operate at our previous full trial capacity, we are pleased to be making progress. We recognise how important it is to our community for serious criminal matters to be tried and resolved.”
Melinda Walker, a defence lawyer and co-chair of the Law Institute of Victoria’s criminal section, said it was a case of watching and waiting to see how the first lot of jury trials go.
“It’s great we’ve been able to start again as the backlog has been incredible,” Ms Walker said.
Back in November, about 1000 accused people were awaiting trial, many of them in custody.
As a way to try to address the backlog, judge-only trials were temporarily introduced in July.
Ms Walker said jury trials couldn’t be replaced.
“The expectation of being tried by one’s peers represents one of the cornerstones of our democracy as it underpins our justice system and ensures a person is tried by a cross-section of an objective, neutral group of 12,” Ms Walker said.
“They all come from different backgrounds and represent a systematic buffer between the state and an accused.”
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Tammy Mills is the legal affairs reporter for The Age.