MAJOR Hunter criminal trials - including the sexual assault trial of former NRL star Jarryd Hayne and the trial of the man accused of murdering Carly McBride - could be postponed or delayed indefinitely after NSW's two highest criminal courts announced they would temporarily suspend jury trials in response to the worsening coronavirus crisis.
NSW Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Bathurst AC and Chief Judge of the NSW District Court Derek Price AM announced on Sunday that new criminal jury trials beginning across NSW from Monday would not go ahead while an urgent review of the empanelment process to limit close social contact among jurors is undertaken.
Current trials, where a jury has already been selected and empanelled, will continue. Judge alone trials, bail applications and civil trials will not be affected.
"This decision has been made in response to the Australian government's advice to limit large gatherings and close social contact over an extended period of time," the joint statement read.
"Jury service plays an important role in our justice system and the courts will be assisted by members of the NSW Chief Medical Officer's team to review and amend the current empanelment process to follow current health guidelines."
Victoria's court system made a similar order on Monday, stopping the Supreme Court and County Court from empanelling new juries as a precaution to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community.
The decision will put a huge strain on the justice system in NSW and only add to the huge existing backlog of criminal trials clogging up the Newcastle District Court.
And it will have an effect on the NSW Supreme Court, with murder trial listings in Newcastle this year the busiest in recent memory due to a combination of factors, including an unprecedented explosion of violence about 15 months ago and at least one significant re-trial.
The decision will likely impact two major trials that are set to commence in Newcastle on May 4.
Jarryd Hayne is scheduled to face a sexual assault trial in Newcastle District Court and Sayle Kenneth Newson is set to face a trial over the murder of Carly McBride, who disappeared from Muswellbrook in 2014. Both trials are expected to be heard before a jury. The decision comes as Attorney General Mark Speakman asked people not directly involved in court proceedings to stay away from NSW courthouses.
Mr Speakman said the local court would implement a greater use of audio visual link (AVL) technology to minimise the number of people in court.
Mr Speakman said a range of options to mitigate disruptions were being considered, including centralising bail applications, having judge-alone trials in the Supreme Court and District Court, where possible and by consent, bringing forward sentencing matters to fill the vacated trial dates and pre-recording witness evidence. Meanwhile, many accused people will remain behind bars for extended periods awaiting trial.
Corrective Services say no inmate or staff member has tested positive to the virus.
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