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two-week break Criminal trials across the State set to be put on hold as Omicron fears grow for jurors

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Defendant’s right to a trial by a jury of their peers made harder because of the risk of contagion when jurors are sequestered together

Defendant’s right to a trial by a jury of their peers made harder because of the risk of contagion when jurors are sequestered together

Defendant’s right to a trial by a jury of their peers made harder because of the risk of contagion when jurors are sequestered together

Criminal trials across the State are set to be put on pause for at least a fortnight, it will be announced today.

The new legal term begins next week, but the Courts Service believes Omicron now makes it practically impossible to call people for jury service, to be empanelled with 11 strangers.

In the past, when dealing with much less transmissible variants, large spaces like Croke Park and theatres were hired for the calling over of jury summonses – when hundreds of people would be called, to be sent over to various courts for the holding of trials.

Ireland’s courts system has continued to function successfully since the pandemic began, through the use of remote sittings and new technology.

This has particularly been the case in civil cases and appeals.

But the entitlement of a defendant to trial by a jury of their peers in a criminal trial has thrown up new difficulties with the advent of Omicron and the risk that people’s health would be endangered by being sequestered with others.

The risk of mass public defiance of jury summonses has also been debated between stakeholders, including the judiciary and gardaí, ahead of today’s expected announcement.

A delay is now seen as a circuit-beaker that would enable the throughput of cases most efficiently over time, rather than attempting to struggle on. Witnesses have also been seeking to self-isolate when struck by Covid, even though they are due in court to give evidence.

“The courts system has not collapsed in the last two years and has coped very well,” said a senior source. “No cases are being abandoned, but there have been consultations over the management of what is in the lists.”

Asked about the imminent deferrals, a spokesman for the Courts Service said a formal statement would be made on the matter today.

The Department of Justice has been consulted and is aware of developments. Criminal trials involve a relatively small proportion of court business.

“Restrictions on some court hearings are expected from next week,” a spokesman for the Courts Service said.

He said court administrators were “liaising with the judiciary, other justice sector agencies, and the legal professions in advance of detailed changes”.

The spokesman added, “The situation will be kept under constant review, and normal criminal trial procedures resumed as soon as practically possible.”

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