Assurance that court building arrangements are appropriate
Ensuring justice continues to be delivered and that all court users are safe remains our primary concerns throughout the pandemic.
The new COVID-19 variant is much more easily transmissible and it's therefore essential that if you're required to attend a court or tribunal building you must strictly adhere to the hands-face-space guidance, namely:
- social distancing
- hand hygiene
- using face coverings
Also refer to our best practice guide which you should follow to keep yourselves and others safe.
HMCTS has published a document which sets out the escalation routes for professional users who have concerns about safety within court and tribunal buildings.
If you've raised any concerns about safety and hygiene/cleanliness, with either the court manager or through HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) channels, which you do not think have been appropriately addressed let us know by emailing us.
Announcement of third lockdown
Following the prime minister’s announcement of a third lockdown we've been listening to your concerns and have sought further assurances from acting CEO of HMCTS, Kevin Sadler, in relation to the new variant.
COVID-19 secure buildings
There is an ongoing concern among practitioners as to how HMCTS can be certain the court and tribunal buildings remain COVID secure with the new more transmissible strain.
HMCTS has consulted again with public health experts who confirm that the arrangements in place are sufficient for dealing with the challenges provided by the new variant of the virus.
Public health experts consider advice from SAGE when making their recommendations on COVID secure arrangements for workplaces and HMCTS states that it is confident it is embedding those measures effectively.
HMCTS has assured us that it will continue to act on the standards, advice and guidance available for workplaces, and where those change it will update its policies to meet new guidelines.
Ensuring justice is delivered safely
Before the announcement of the third lockdown we had recently raised concerns regarding instances where judges required members to attend physical hearings where remote hearings would have been better.
We fully support the lord chief justice’s position that “no participant in legal proceedings should be required by a judge or magistrate to attend court unless it is necessary in the interests of justice”. We believe that in exercising that balance the judge must give safety priority.
HMCTS states that it continues to work closely and support the judiciary – and where a judge or magistrate decides it is appropriate to hold a hearing remotely, it has the required equipment and trained staff to support those hearings.
As part of the court recovery plans HMCTS has been recruiting additional staff to specifically support remote hearings and has rolled out a training programme to ensure all staff who manage these hearings can do so effectively. This includes supporting the judiciary.
We've stated that if there are any inconsistencies in judicial practice on this front this must be addressed.
Safety measures in place
If you do have to attend court, HMCTS assures us that there is effective enforcement for ensuring that individual courts are applying safety measures effectively:
- anyone who is unwell or isolating should not attend court
- risk assessments are updated on a weekly basis and with reference to the latest public health guidance. HMCTS is in close contact with public health officials, including on the new variant and its challenges, and this expert input is informing local assessment reviews
- plexiglass screens have been installed in over 400 courtrooms
- courts are cleaned and disinfected regularly. If there is a reported case of COVID-19 affecting any court, it states that it takes robust action and will close the building if needed to ensure a thorough clean can take place
- face coverings are advised in all shared areas
Given the new situation we've emphasised the increased importance to roll out further Nightingale courts. Increasing the number of locations where cases can be held is a safer way of generating more capacity than forcing more people into the existing court buildings.
HMCTS has informed us that it continues to work to increase the court capacity by opening more Nightingale courts. The first of the phase three venues – at Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Library and at Lancaster Town Hall – were opened before Christmas.
It plans to open further Nightingale courts at Hull University, Stafford and Cirencester by the end of January. The full programme of phase three venues is expected to be delivered by March with individual opening dates dependent on licence agreements and completion of enabling works.
HMCTS expects to have 40 courtrooms across 21 Nightingale courts from phases one, two and three.
We're in regular correspondence with HMCTS and will continue to keep you updated on emerging issues related to the court and tribunal service.