Safety in courts
Law Society president, David Greene, discusses recent safety concerns solicitors have raised on the potential risks they face when attending court.
We all share the concern about the dangers associated with the spread of coronavirus, and the safety of everyone working in our courts. Whilst we know that all those working at courts are achieving much, solicitors have raised numerous concerns with us on the potential risks they face when attending court.
Some of the issues reported to us by members include:
- courts users, including security staff, not wearing face coverings in public and communal areas of court buildings
- inconsistencies regarding face covering usage in court rooms (unless exempt or directed to remove them for the purposes of speaking or giving evidence)
- having to take instructions in confined and unventilated rooms where social distancing is impossible to maintain
- being required to attend in person hearings for matters which could be reasonably dealt with via remote means, resulting in travel to court and increased footfall within the courts. This includes, but is not limited to, the increased footfall caused by the police forces across the country withdrawing from the use of cloud video platform (CVP) for remand hearings for those charged with a criminal offence
- in Nottingham, six of the nine Crown Court rooms have been closed because it has been discovered that the ventilation system is not operating effectively
An article in the Sunday Times on 17 January outlined many more of these issues.
As a result, last week I wrote to Kevin Sadler, the acting chief executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), and Lady Justice Thirlwall, the senior presiding judge. In that letter, I called for a two week pause in non-custodial cases, to allow time for discussions among all stakeholders about what is required to assure court users that the courts are safe and to bring them into effect.
Both replied to the effect that the measures in place at present are adequate.
They have signposted a number of measures that are there to safeguard court users:
- guidance on court attendance including when not to attend if you have a suspected or confirmed case of COVID
- where to report COVID-19 incidents or concerns to court and tribunal staff and professional court users
- checking with your local authority if rapid COVID tests are being offered. If you choose to have a test and test positive, you must not attend a court or tribunal. You should contact the court or tribunal and follow NHS advice
- COVID risk assessments of the court and tribunal buildings which are reviewed and updated weekly. You can request these and they should be made readily available
- escalation routes for legal professionals
- the lord chief justice’s note that facilitating remote attendance of all or some of those involved in hearings is the default position in all jurisdictions
- London magistrates' courts listing guidance which is expected to be extended more widely
They have also requested the assistance of the profession in doing their part to keep courts safe:
- you must follow the hands-face-space guidance
- you must wear a face covering in all public and communal parts of the court building (unless exempt: see exemptions in England and exemptions in Wales)
- during a hearing, all present will be expected to wear a face covering, save for the judge/presiding magistrate, an advocate addressing the court or a witness giving evidence as per the pan jurisdictional policy issued by the president of the Family Division
- you must maintain social distancing whilst inside the court buildings by keeping a two-metre gap between people
- you should encourage clients to limit the number of people who attend court with them in order to limit the footfall (see HMCTS guidance on the support available)
A number of issues remain unresolved. A number of courts do not have adequate CVP facilities to hold video hearings. The withdrawal of the police from the CVP system apart from in confirmed or suspected COVID cases has increased footfall in the magistrates court, with a consequent increase in risk, and negative impact on efforts to tackle the backlog of cases.
Many cells are incapable of being adapted for safe use under current Public Health England guidance and have not been equipped with alternative facilities such as telephone links to enable instructions to be taken. More widely, users are not following guidelines which remains a serious concern.
The situation remains deeply unsatisfactory. We are disappointed that our call for a pause to make the necessary changes to assure members the courts are safe has been rejected.
We intend to publish guidance shortly on members’ rights and obligations in relation to their own safety and that of their staff. For now, my key messages are:
- do not put yourself or your staff into situations which you consider are unsafe
- follow all guidelines relating to COVID-secure practice
- always seek a remote hearing unless the interests of justice demand a face-to-face hearing
- make sure you are on your local court’s mailing list to receive up-to-date and relevant information, for example when COVID cases arise in a local court
- whenever you see unsafe practice in the courts, report it and escalate it until it is properly addressed
- you should arrange remote meetings with your local judiciary to raise any issues you may have about how courts are working and what needs to change
If you do not feel issues you have raised with HMCTS or the judiciary have been appropriately addressed, you can raise these with the Law Society by emailing us at email@example.com.