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Coronavirus: Lengthy court trials to be put on hold as ministers unveil sweeping new powers

The High Court, London

3 min read

Criminal trials in England and Wales will be put on hold under emergency powers being brought in by ministers to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

Lord chief justice Lord Burnett said cases longer than three days that were due to start before April will now be postponed in light of a "public health emergency".

Police will also be handed draconian powers to detain carriers of the virus under attempts to slow down the spread of the outbreak.

MPs are expected to nod the legislation through without the need for Commons votes so it gets onto the statute book as quickly as possible.

Lord Burnett said: "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."

He added: "Trials in the crown court present particular problems in a fast-developing situation because they require the presence in court of many different participants including the judge, the jury, a defendant, lawyers and witnesses as well as staff. 

"Given the risks of a trial not being able to complete, I have decided that no new trial should start in the crown court unless it is expected to last for three days or less."

Lord Burnett, who is head of the judiciary in England and Wales, said adjourned cases would be "kept under review" - while fresh curbs could into force for short trials "as circumstances develop".

Under the new powers proposed by ministers on Tuesday, audio and video links could be used to allow appeals for anyone who breaks any quarantine measures introduced to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

The measures are part of sweeping, "time-limited" two-year legislation which the Government said would focus on supporting frontline health and social care staff and containing the spread of the virus "by reducing unnecessary social contacts".

Among the new powers, NHS staff who return to work after retirement will no longer be banned from working more than 16 hours a week, while fewer doctors will be required to allow people to be detained under the mental health act in a bid to free up medical professionals.

Ministers will also gain powers to require schools and childcare powers to stay open, with teacher-to-pupil ratios relaxed and school meal standards "adapted".

The Home Secretary will also be able to order port and airport operators to halt their operations in the event of a shortage of Border Force staff in a move the Government said would help the UK "maintain adequate border security throughout the pandemic and protect the public from the threat of criminality".

Meanwhile the new powers will allow the Government "to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the pandemic" anywhere and order the closure of premises including schools where necessary.

And under plans to "streamline the death management process" in the event of an overwhelming number of casualties from the outbreak, cremations will be able to take place without a second medical certificate, while companies and others "not directly involved in the funeral sector" could be ordered to use their vehicles to move bodies.

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