Coronavirus will leave Britain's justice system in ruins, warn lawyers

Coronavirus will leave Britain’s justice system in ruins amid growing backlog of 33,000 crown court cases, warn lawyers after trials longer than three days are postponed due to outbreak

  • Cases longer than three days due to start before end of April will be postponed
  • Lord Chief Justice statement said any trials currently under way would continue 
  • Came after pressure mounted on government to make clear strategy for courts
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

Lawyers across Britain have warned that the coronavirus outbreak could leave the UK’s justice system in ruins amid a growing backlog of crown court cases.

Criminal trials likely to run longer than three days will be postponed to prevent Covid-19 contamination in courtrooms, it was announced last night.

And legal groups suggested that cases could be delayed by years, with the deadly pandemic devastating an already ‘crumbling infrastructure’.

Almost 33,000 criminal cases were already waiting to be heard by crown courts, according to the most recent figures from the Ministery of Justice.

Criminal trials likely to run longer than three days will be postponed to prevent coronavirus contamination in courtrooms (London’s Old Bailey pictured)

Lawyers across Britain have warned that the coronavirus outbreak could leave the UK’s justice system in ruins amid a growing backlog of crown court cases (pictured)

Yesterday, Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett – the most senior judge in England and Wales – decided no fresh case should start in any Crown Court unless it is expected to last fewer than three days.

Following the announcement, British barristers took to Twitter to warn of the devastating impact the coronavirus crisis could have to the criminal justice system.

One person wrote: ‘With a backlog of nearly 33,000 crown court cases already… coronavirus will leave the criminal justice system, to use a technical legal term, b*******.’

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) – which represents around 3,000 criminal barristers in England and Wales – also warned that the outbreak could leave victims waiting years for justice. 

Speaking to The Sun, CBA chair Caroline Goodwin QC said just one infection inside a court could mean ‘pushing back trials for months or even another year’.

She explained: ‘Coronavirus-induced closures to just one or two court rooms in each Court or an entire building would deliver a killer blow to a criminal justice system on its knees.’

A CBA spokesperson told MailOnline: ‘Many courts having to either adjourn hearings or push further back already delayed hearings will have a domino effect on a criminal court service that has been teetering on the edge of chaos for months.

‘We already have a criminal justice service which is in crisis, following a chronic shortfall of funding. 

Barristers (above) took to their personal Twitter accounts to insist that all court cases should be postponed

They added: ‘It’s a sad day for criminal justice that we have had to wait for a health crisis like this for people to realise the chronic state that our criminal justice system has reached.

‘And yet there was still zero new money put aside in the budget for the courts, only this month. All that happened for the crown court estate was a restatement of commitments made in 2019.’

The Bar Council – which represents all 17,000 barristers in England and Wales – suggested that the guidance to postpone trials that lasted longer than three days wasn’t enough.

‘The Bar Council considers that all proceedings conducted in person (but particularly jury trials) are inconsistent with the Government’s current health advice’, said Chair Amanda Pinto QC said.

‘Already members of the public are understandably reluctant to appear, for example, as witnesses. Hearings are inevitably going to be ineffective, even if practitioners and the parties turn up. 

‘Scotland and Northern Ireland have already stopped listing any new jury trials. We do not believe the risk of infection is less in England and Wales; indeed the government’s position is that the risk is greatest in London. 

A pedestrian wears a protective face mask while taking a bus in Westminster, London, which has been hit hard by the outbreak

‘Nor do we consider that short jury trials present less of a risk to the health of those involved than longer ones – quite the opposite.’

She added: ‘We appreciate the efforts the Ministry of Justice has made to address them, but we have serious concerns about standards of hygiene and facilities within court buildings, such as lack of soap, sanitising hand-gel and running water and the cleaning of conference and court rooms. 

‘We are also very concerned about the security checks that are necessary for safety but inadequate to mitigate the risk of infection being passed on.’

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson told The Sun: ‘At a time of genuine public concern it is disappointing to see general maintenance issues at courts linked misleadingly with the spread of this virus.

‘We’re taking Covid-19 extremely seriously – our buildings are cleaned each day, courts provide soap and water, and users can now bring in hand sanitiser.’

Meanwhile, barristers took to their personal Twitter accounts to insist that all court cases should be postponed.

One person wrote: ‘This is completely illogical. Trials under three days are just as risky as trials over three days – probably more so because of the increased turnover of jurors, witnesses, defendants and lawyers.

A woman wearing a protective mask walks past a sign in a cosmetic shop window in London

‘This is a fudge to try and prop up a system on its knees due to chronic under-funding,’ while another joked: ‘I’m told it doesn’t take three days of close contact to catch it…’ 

The number of cases waiting to be heard by crown courts was 32,708 in the second quarter of 2019, according to the Ministry of Justice, reported The Times.

Yesterday, it was announced that cases longer than three days which were due to start before the end of April will be put on hold.

The announcement late last night came after pressure mounted on the government to make clear its strategy for courts.

The statement said the impact of the public health emergency on the operation of the courts has been under ‘constant review’, and that 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.

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.

A map of Britain detailing the amount of confirmed coronavirus cases around the UK

‘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.’

The statement said any trials currently under way would continue, in the hope they could be completed.

It continued: ‘All those attending court should follow Public Heath England guidance suitably adjusted to reflect the distinct features of a court as a working environment for all concerned, including jurors.

In relation to other court hearings, including family and magistrates’ courts, where no jurors are involved, the statement said steps are being taken to enable as many hearings as possible to take place – with some or all of those involved attending by telephone, videolink or online.

It added: ‘Many court hearings will be able to continue as normal with appropriate precautions being taken.

‘We must make every effort to maintain a functioning court system in support of the administration of justice and rule of law.’ 


What is the coronavirus? 

A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.

The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.

Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.

The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals. 

‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses). 

‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’ 

The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.

By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.

The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000. 

Where does the virus come from?

According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.

The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.

Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat. 

A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.

However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.

Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.

‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’  

So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it? 

Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.

It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.

Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.

Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.

‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’

If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die. 

‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.

‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’

How does the virus spread?

The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.

It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.

Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person. 

What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?

Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.

If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.

In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.

Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why. 

What have genetic tests revealed about the virus? 

Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world. 

This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.   

Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.

However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.

This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.   

More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.

How dangerous is the virus?  

The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.

Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.

However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.

Can the virus be cured? 

The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.

Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.

No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.

The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.

Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.

People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.

And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).

However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.

Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?   

The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’. 

Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.

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