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Jury trials resume today with virus measures in place

The first jury trial since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic will be heard at the Supreme Court today, with proceedings subject to strict public health measures including compulsory use of masks.

Although the courts continued to operate throughout the lockdown, this is the first criminal case to be heard before a jury in six months.

It comes as the Gibraltar Court Service also confirmed plans for a dramatically scaled back Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year on October 2.

The ceremony is usually well attended by Gibraltar’s legal community and senior dignitaries, with lawyers and judges filling two courtrooms to hear addresses by the Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the chairman of the Law Council.

Traditionally, barristers attend a mass before filing into court flanked by a guard of uniformed law enforcement officers, in an event defined as much by its pomp and ceremony as by the content of its speeches.

This year, however, there will be no such fanfare.

There will be no procession or guard of honour, and gone too will be the post-event reception with wine and samosas in the gardens of the court complex.

The mass will be held ahead of the court event subject to the church’s social distancing measures.

But there will be no procession or mingling outside the church and lawyers will don their robes at the pews.

Attendance in the court itself will be limited to just 20 people - judges, senior barristers and dignitaries including the Governor and the Chief Minister, with no accompanying partners - in line with current public health rules.

With no air conditioning allowed inside the courtroom, there will be no wigs either. Instead, everyone will don masks, although judges and barristers will wear their court robes.

Face coverings will also be required today when the jury trial gets under way.

Court staff have been working closely with the Director of Public Health, Dr Sohail Bhatti, to put in place measures that will limit the risk of infection should anyone in the courtroom be an asymptotic carrier of Covid-19, while ensuring the court can go about its business normally.

The most obvious change will be that everyone will be masked throughout the proceedings, although there may be circumstances in which witnesses will be allowed to remove them at the discretion of the judge.

Anticipating that potential scenario, a transparent screen has been installed around the witness box to shield others in the courtroom.

There will be no air conditioning and lawyers will not have to wear their wigs, although they will be robed.

Jurors have been summoned to attend at staggered times and, if called, will initially sit in the public gallery - separated by one seat - while listening to the judge’s initial comments and questions.

Once selected formally as the jury, they will be asked to enter the courtroom well and sit in the traditional jury box, again separated by an empty seat.

Two additional chairs have been brought into the courtroom to ensure there is sufficient distancing between jurors, and there are similar social distancing measures in place inside the jury room.

All defendants will sit in the secure area normally reserved only for those who are being held on remand, and there will be an intense cleaning regime throughout the trial.

The trial will be held in public, but seating in the public gallery will be limited to ensure social distancing is possible.

The measures aim to provide reassurance to those participating in the trial, and in particular jurors for whom the process and courtroom setting may be new and thus intimidating.

But senior court officials will be monitoring the proceedings closely to see if the measures can be improved, conscious that the experience may prove unsettling for jurors.