Julian Assange’s bail hearing was a high-profile opportunity for Britain’s court system to show how well it can operate under the coronavirus lockdown.
The verdict is that it’s still very much a work in progress.
Attorneys for the WikiLeaks founder applied for his bail Monday, saying he was at risk in London’s notorious Belmarsh prison because of his poor health. A few hours later, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a national lock-down to slow the spread of the virus. British courts said they would scale back listings, halt new jury trials and try to use phone and video as much as possible.
It took several hours of wrong numbers, bad phone connections and lots of background noise for Judge Vanessa Baraitser to rule Assange wouldn’t be released.
Assange is facing extradition to the U.S. on charges that he conspired to obtain and disclose classified documents passed to him by former American Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
The legal system is grappling with something its never faced before: how to maintain justice while adhering to strict rules imposed by the government. The move to shift often ancient court rooms into using modern-day technology to connect lawyers, court reporters and litigants around the world hasn’t been smooth.
Officials originally gave the wrong phone number, and calls were ringing on the desk of a frustrated receptionist at a brokerage firm. Assange’s long-time lawyer Gareth Pierce was having trouble accessing the hearing.
Baraitser arrived, but the next five minutes were a chorus of “Can you hear me?” The judge took the time to thank Assange’s supporters for observing social distancing rules.
Along with Baraitser and her clerk, 14 people were present in the court at Westminster, including Assange’s fans and an attorney sporting a surgical mask. It was a far cry from the first week of his trial in February, where hundreds of supporters and journalists queued for hours, desperate to get a seat in court.
The remaining three weeks of the Australian’s extradition trial, currently scheduled for May, is probably no longer feasible due to the number of witnesses abroad and difficulties in preparing the case while under lock-down, his lawyer said. There’s a high risk of a coronavirus outbreak in the prison and Assange is likely at increased risk if he is infected, he said.
At one point, as the judge and attorneys discussed a privacy issue, the conference call was put on mute. With the court quiet, one participant could be heard violently coughing while another was heard asking for a cup of tea.
“I’m hoping for a quieter day tomorrow,” a participant said.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.