Labour calls for 'wartime juries' of 7 to cut COVID-19 trial backlog

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FILE PHOTO: Britain's Labour Party MP David Lammy speaks after Speaker John Bercow delivered a statement in the House of Commons in London

LONDON (Reuters) - Juries in criminal trials in England and Wales should be cut from 12 to seven members to help tackle a backlog of more than 54,000 cases that has rapidly worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, the opposition Labour Party said on Tuesday.

Criminal justice watchdogs have been warning of dire consequences from lengthy delays to trials, with victims losing faith in the system, witnesses' memories fading and defendants' lives on hold.

"The justice system is facing its gravest crisis since World War Two," said David Lammy, Labour's justice policy chief.

He said temporarily cutting juries to seven members, as was done during the war, would reduce the space required to hold socially-distanced trials and the likelihood of jurors becoming infected in court.

The Ministry of Justice said it had implemented a range of COVID safety measures designed for 12-person juries, but it was not ruling anything out.

Crown Courts, which handle the most serious cases, had close to 40,000 cases outstanding before the pandemic, but that number had jumped by 38% by the end of 2020, official figures show.

England has been back in national lockdown since Jan. 5, causing further disruption.

In many courtrooms, 12 jurors would previously have sat close together for days or weeks on end. Staff have had to find COVID-secure ways to operate, such as using several video-linked courtrooms for a single trial.

Lammy also called for more temporary facilities known as "Nightingale courts" to be set up. So far, 20 have been opened in England, in locations such as universities, town halls and theatres.

The Ministry of Justice said it had prioritised measures that yielded the greatest impact, such as installing plexiglas screens in courtrooms and jury deliberation rooms. It said over 290 courtrooms were now set up to hold COVID-secure jury trials.

"But we know more must be done and are investing 110 million pounds ($151 million) into a range of measures to drive this recovery further, including opening more Nightingale courts," it said.

In Scotland, which has its own justice system, only the most serious criminal trials are being conducted while a national lockdown remains in place. The backlog of criminal cases there is over 30,000, up 40% since the start of the pandemic.

($1 = 0.7280 pounds)

(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon. Editing by Mark Potter)