The County Court has vacated Melbourne criminal jury trials listed for Term 4 as part of changes to operations due to coronavirus (COVID-19).
When the County Court vacated jury trials set down from March of this year, it preserved the full listing of trials for Term 4. This was done to allow for those trials to commence, should circumstances permit. Term 4 trials represent a large volume of matters.
In order to provide practitioners and participants in the trials allocated to Term 4 with a level of certainty and notice (including to provide advice and consider any applications), and to allow for the realistic and sensible management of a large number of trials, the Court has made the decision to vacate Term 4 trials, with a limited exception. This statement sets out the reasons for making that decision.
The Court had planned for the resumption of a limited number of jury trials from 20 July to late September 2020. This pilot was to assess the viability and the safest approach to conducting jury trials within the COVID-19 environment. Had the pilot been successful, the Term 4 sittings would have followed immediately, albeit with reduced capacity.
On 8 July 2020, the planned resumption of jury trials was postponed due to the increasing rate of COVID-19 transmission within the community, and the tightening of restrictions. Since that time, the Court has continued to monitor the situation. Any future decision to resume jury trials will be informed by expert health advice and also by the level of restrictions likely to be in place at the time of resumption.
There remains considerable uncertainty regarding the timeline and manner in which restrictions may be eased after the current Stage 4 restrictions in Melbourne end. However, public statements indicate that any easing of restrictions will be staged, and any opening-up will be gradual and cautious. It seems sufficiently clear that the circumstances are unlikely to permit the Court to resume jury trials at the commencement of Term 4, on 5 October 2020.
The Court still leaves open the possibility of conducting a pilot of a limited number of jury trials commencing at some time in Term 4, should the environment then permit. The duration and size of this pilot will depend upon when the pilot can commence. If this occurs, the trials will be drawn from those which were assigned to the initial pilot period. As to this possibility, the Court will endeavour to provide a further update by Monday 12 October 2020. In the meantime, Court staff will communicate with the relevant practitioners with respect to date availability.
It follows from the above that, with this limited pilot exception, all jury trials which had trial dates set down for this year, including Term 4, will be vacated.
Importantly, the decision to vacate Term 4 trials allows the Court to issue a revised relisting schedule. This will be issued within the week.
Chief Judge Peter Kidd, County Court of Victoria