Leeds Crown Court murder trial stopped as judge tells jurors: "Your health is my priority"

A murder trial was halted at Leeds Crown Court today as all jury cases in England and Wales were put on hold to halt the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

Monday, 23rd March 2020, 4:00 pm
Updated Monday, 23rd March 2020, 4:02 pm

A High Court Judge told jurors in the trial of Dale Tarbox that "we are living in very strange and very worrying times" as she explained how the decision had been made in order to protect public health.

Tarbox is accused of murdering 51-year-old Susan Howells.

Miss Howells' decomposing remains were found in a shallow grave after police launched a missing person inquiry.Detectives made the discovery in August last year, six months after the 51-year-old was last seen alive.

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Leeds Crown Court

Tarbox, 39, denies the charge

Trial Judge, Mrs Justice Lambert told leading counsel in the case: "It will probably come as no surprise to you, given the fast moving situation, and reflecting on the matter overnight and discussing with those more senior than me in the judiciary, I have reached a strong preliminary view that the jury should be discharged and the trial adjourned."

The judge said two members of the jury fell into the category of people deemed by the Government as most at risk.Two other two jurors were deemed vulnerable "by reason of age."

The court heard two members of counsel involved in the case were also in the high risk category and could no longer be involved in the trial.

Tarbox is also in the category of those considered most at risk..

The judge said she had reached the decision despite no jury member indicating that they no longer wanted to take part in the trial.

The option of re-configuring the court had been considered, to allow jurors and everyone else involved in the trial to be able to sit two metres apart from each other.

The judge explained that it would not be possible as a witness was to give evidence behind a screen to protect her from having to see the defendant.

Mrs Justice Lambert continued: "That is not going to be easily achieved in this case because, when giving evidence behind a screen, it is difficult to configure the court in such a way so that sight line is maintained by the jury."

Tarbox's barrister, Amjad Malik QC said he had concerns for his client's health if the trial was to continue.

Mr Malik said he had taken the decision not to speak with Tarbox in the court cells before today's hearing for safety reasons.

The barrister was allowed time to approach the dock where he explained the situation to him through a glass security screen.

Members of the jury were then brought in and seated in different areas of courtroom a safe distance apart.

The judge told them: "I wanted to tell you all personally of the decision that I have been very reluctant to make.

"I must discharge this trial and I must discharge you as jurors in this case.

"First and foremost, I am aware that some of you on the jury and others involved in this case fall into a category that the Government describes as vulnerable.

"Those who should be, if not at home, very carefully and assiduously keeping apart from others.

"As you appreciate, the courtroom doesn't lend itself very well to that sort of social distancing.

"My priority has got to be your health and the health of your families

"We are living in very strange and very worrying times indeed.

"But your health is my priority.

"Thank you all very much indeed. I know you have all listened to the evidence and were concentrating very hard.

"But I'm afraid it is just impossible for me to allow that to continue.

"I wish you all very good health and very good health to your families."

In other courtrooms at Leeds, efforts were being made to conduct court business while maintaining social distancing.

Some lawyers appeared using Skype call or private video links

Members of the press were allowed to sit at the now-unused jury benches.

A defendant in one sentencing hearing sat in the dock wearing a mask.

A barrister in one case chose to read out a written statement to the court to prevent paper documents from having to be passed around.

It was announced earlier today that all jury trials in England and Wales have been put on hold to halt the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

Courts have been told to use "considerable imagination and flexibility" to work up plans for every person to be two metres apart from each other before trials can begin again.

Lord Burnett, head of the judiciary in England and Wales, said social distancing is a "particular concern" to address as the government prepares to rush through emergency laws to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jurors summoned for duty on Monday were told to remain at home and contact the court they were due to attend.

They will only be asked to come in for trials where specific arrangements to ensure safety have been put in place.