How NSW courts are reopening safely

In recent weeks, more than 30,000 residents of Greater Sydney will have found a jury summons letter in the mail, as the state’s courts prepare to start the wheels turning on jury trials again from October 25. For that to happen, vaccination, rapid testing, and social distancing – including a new “jury bubble” concept – are key to the reopening plan.

With the virus circulating in the community as more of the state reopens in coming months, doing so safely is both a challenge and a paramount concern for the NSW District Court’s Chief Judge, Derek Price AO, his Supreme Court counterpart Tom Bathurst AC, and NSW Sheriff Tracey Hall.

Justice Derek Price AO, NSW District Court Chief Judge, says the courts have had to be flexible in this time of uncertainty.

Justice Derek Price AO, NSW District Court Chief Judge, says the courts have had to be flexible in this time of uncertainty.Credit:Janie Barrett

Justice Price said the past 18 months have been “terribly difficult” for the courts, “just like it has been for the whole of Australia”. But he’s also relished the challenge to innovate and be flexible.

Innovations developed during this time – from remote hearings to novel uses of courtroom space – will be key to balancing health needs with the catch-up exercise the state’s courts are now facing.

In the NSW District Court, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest jury trial operation with at least 1700 trials each year, COVID-19 has created a serious backlog. Since the lockdown of Greater Sydney began in June, more than 230 jury trials have been suspended, with many now not due to start until well into next year.

That’s on top of an existing backlog from 2020, the extent of which is more difficult to quantify as courts initially shut down and then reopened at reduced capacity before the Delta outbreak again brought proceedings to a halt.

The Supreme Court has been less seriously affected as it holds fewer jury trials, but most of the higher court’s accused offenders are on remand, so a delayed trial – there have been about 10 – has added consequences for those forced to spend the time behind bars.

While courthouses in much of NSW for the past three months have been closed to all but the few required to attend in person (mostly for local matters), the system hasn’t been hibernating. Trials by judge alone have forged ahead remotely, as have civil matters, committals and pre-trial arguments.

Sydney’s legal profession has found itself increasingly swapping their usual courtroom stage for a computer screen over this period. Remote hearings have done the job but not without the occasional hiccup as internet connections wavered and observers forgot to hit the mute button, or left their video on, giving all watching a glimpse of bedroom or the underside of a chin.

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