Coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance and best practice for member safety in court and tribunal buildings

We're in regular contact with HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) to make sure that essential safety measures are in place for solicitors, and all court users, who must attend a court or tribunal building.

We're also in contact with our members attending court on a regular basis and have been listening to your concerns.

To help keep you and all court users safe, and in the effort to reduce the spread of infection, we've set out some guidance and best practice based on government guidance.

For the purpose of this guidance, 'workplace' includes a court or tribunal building.

Some solicitors that are essential to the running of the justice system are classed as critical workers.

The Ministry of Justice has confirmed to us that this category only applies to:

  • advocates (including solicitor advocates) required to appear before a court or tribunal (remotely or in person), including prosecutors
  • other legal practitioners required to support the administration of justice including duty solicitors (police station and court) and barristers, solicitors, legal executives, paralegals and others who work on imminent or ongoing court or tribunal hearings
  • solicitors acting in connection with the execution of wills
  • solicitors and barristers advising people living in institutions or deprived of their liberty

We sought clarification from Welsh officials about the critical key worker definition and the extent to which the legal profession is included.

Since March 2020, the Welsh government has strengthened the duties of local authorities providing for the children of critical workers and vulnerable learners with the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No 5) (Wales) Regulations 2020.

Part six of the Regulations relates to provision of education in school. In deciding whether a pupil is the child of a critical worker, the local authority must have regard to any guidance published by the Welsh ministers about identifying children of critical workers.

The list, although not exhaustive, does make reference to essential public services such as the judiciary and as such, in the Welsh government’s view, certain categories of private solicitor directly engaged in the justice system may also be considered.

On 5 January, the government announced that anyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable should not attend work and should only work from home.

If you've been told that you fall into this category, you should not go to court. If other alternatives are available, these should be used.

You have a right to work in places where risks to your health and safety are properly controlled.

HMCTS maintains that court and tribunal buildings are COVID-secure, not close contact settings and safe to attend, as per Public Health and Government COVID secure guidelines

A COVID-secure workplace includes, but is not limited to:

  • readily available risk assessments
  • social distancing
  • face covering usage
  • cleaning, hygiene and handwashing
  • ventilation and air conditioning

You should not put yourself or your staff into situations which you consider to be unsafe.

If it's clear on attendance at a court or tribunal building that government guidance is not being followed, you reasonably believe it's an unsafe environment to attend at that particular time and you have specific queries or concerns relating to health and safety, you should raise these with the court manager and/or the presiding judges/magistrates in the first instance. See also the ‘Reporting concerns’ section below for further information.

If you're not satisfied with the response and continue to have genuine concerns, you should talk to your employer, manager/supervisor or a health and safety representative as to whether you should remain at the HMCTS building.

If you think that those responsible for a court building are not minimising the risks, following government guidance or are not carrying out their legal duties regarding health and safety and this has been pointed out to them, and no satisfactory response has been received, you should make a complaint to the Health and Safety Executive.

There are a number of COVID-19 testing methods in place to allow you to continue working safely and reduce the risk of infection in the community.

Home testing collection from courts and tribunals

HMCTS is in the process of rolling out home test kits for collection from all court and tribunal buildings in England and Wales.

Home testing will allow all court users to test themselves before attending court, meaning those who are asymptomatic but test positive can follow NHS advice and not attend court. This will help keep courts and tribunals safe by reducing the risk of exposure/transmission.

Test kits can be collected from a designated collection point within the court or tribunal building. Full guidance is provided with the kit, which will include seven tests, enabling two tests a week to be taken for a three-and-a-half-week period.

Once the test gives a result, individuals are expected to register their results via NHS Test and Trace.

If the test gives a positive result, you must follow the stay at home guidance for households with possible or confirmed (COVID-19) infection and should take a follow-up PCR test.

If the test is negative, then the viral load is not indicative of an individual being infectious.

Accessing tests in England

In England, you'll be able to order home-testing kits online via the government scheme if you: 

  • do not visit a court or tribunal site regularly
  • work from home, or
  • find home delivery more convenient

You may be able to get a rapid test from an NHS site. The best way to find a location is to use the NHS COVID-19 Test and Vaccination Site Finder.

Accessing tests in Wales

In Wales, if you are unable to work from home you can now have lateral flow tests delivered directly to your home address.

By mid-May, HMCTS expects home-test kits to be available at courts or tribunals.

Until then, if you have coronavirus symptoms, you can book a PCR test through GOV.UK. This is a full test, rather than a rapid lateral flow device test.

Read more about testing in Wales

Surge testing

Surge testing is currently being used in areas of England where COVID-19 variants have been identified. In locations where new virus variants have been found the government advises you to take a COVID test.

Positive test results

It remains essential that anyone who gets a positive result from a lateral flow device test self-isolates immediately, as must other members of their household, while they get a confirmatory PCR test.

Read the government press release

Positive results must be reported to any court building you may have attended following a test. This will be particularly important with new variants and the possible need for surge testing.

You must not attend a court or tribunal building if you:

  • have coronavirus symptoms: a new continuous cough; a high temperature; a loss of, or change in, your normal sense of smell or taste
  • have tested positive for COVID-19
  • are waiting for a test result
  • have been instructed by the NHS to self-isolate (you must observe quarantine unless explicitly required to attend court)

If any of these apply to you, you should contact the court or tribunal to allow for suitable arrangements to be made in preparation for your hearing.

Find a court or tribunal

Even if you have no diagnosis or symptoms, you should seek to engage with the court remotely, if this is technically possible, unless the interests of justice demand a face-to-face hearing as per the lord chief justice's guidance.

See the guidance to the availability of live links in magistrates’ courts under their criminal and civil jurisdiction (PDF 239 KB) (while Coronavirus Act 2020 is in force).

You should make sure you're on your local court’s mailing list to receive up-to-date and relevant information about the court you are required to attend – for example, when COVID cases arise – to allow you to make an informed decision as to whether to attend.

You can also check the court and tribunal finder page. HMCTS updates this within an hour of a decision being made as to whether a court has had to be closed for a 'section 16' deep clean.

A ‘warn and inform’ letter is issued to legal professionals where there are two or more confirmed positive cases in an HMCTS building within 14 days.

Download a flowchart explaining the process (PDF 314 KB)

‘Section 16’ cleans are undertaken where there has been a confirmed case of COVID-19 or where an individual who is symptomatic has been into a building within 72 hours and the areas they have occupied cannot be quarantined for 72 hours.

If you believe a hearing has been incorrectly listed as face-to-face or have good reason to request a hearing be converted to a remote hearing, you should contact the listing officer or make an application for the hearing to be held remotely. This should be done in good time.

Read the government guidance on deciding if a video hearing is suitable

You're only obliged to undertake the mandatory services required by your legal aid contract and to ensure that you meet your obligations under the SRA Principles and Code of Conduct.

Read our practice note on rejecting un-remunerative publicly funded criminal work

You can refer to the above sections ‘Your health and safety’, ‘If you are required to attend’ and ‘Reporting concerns’ if you have concerns around your safety or the method in which the hearing is listed to be conducted.

If you have concerns about your health and safety, contact the court before attending and ask for a copy of the court's risk assessment.

This will allow you to:

  • make sure that the courts apply the guidelines effectively
  • raise concerns if that is not happening

If you're contacting your local court by email, we suggest that you address the request for the attention of the senior person on site.

These assessments should be made readily available, but if not and you experience difficulties obtaining these, you can email us at hmctscourtreform@lawsociety.org.uk.

Whenever you see unsafe practice in the courts, you should report it and escalate it until it's properly addressed.

HMCTS has published an escalation routes document for professional users which you should use to raise ‘real time’ concerns about the safety of courts and tribunals during coronavirus.

If you do not feel the issues you've raised have been appropriately addressed by any of the stages outlined in the escalation routes document, email us at hmctscourtreform@lawsociety.org.uk.

You can sign up to the professional users’ access scheme, which provides solicitors with an ID card that allows fast-track court access to more than 300 HMCTS buildings.

It must be noted that security processes must be COVID compliant and you should continue to adhere to social distancing guidelines when going through security checks with or without an ID card.

You can read government details about security, cleaning and social distancing arrangement in court and tribunal buildings.

There will be separate fast-access lanes for members of the scheme during the busiest times of the day, where possible.

Read more about the solicitor ID card scheme

You must wear a face covering when entering, moving around and leaving a court or tribunal building.

When entering a building, you may be asked to temporarily remove your face covering for identification purposes.

Face coverings must be worn in all public and communal parts inside, including corridors, consultation rooms, the facilities, lifts and cell areas, as well as the surrounding areas of the building.

This is a very important rule to adhere to in order to keep coronavirus numbers down.

During a hearing, all present will be expected to wear a face covering, unless they meet one of the following exceptions set out in the pan jurisdictional policy issued by the president of the Family Division:

  • the judge/presiding magistrate
  • an advocate addressing the court
  • if you need to communicate with someone who relies on lip reading
  • a witness giving vidence

It must be noted that repeated use of face coverings will reduce their efficacy – face masks should be replaced with new ones and cloth masks should be regularly washed.

You do not need to wear a face covering if you're exempt:

If any of these exemptions apply to you, you may feel comfortable showing an exemption card – this is a personal choice and is not necessary in law.

Wearing a face covering is not a reason to reduce or abandon social distancing.

You must maintain social distancing whilst inside the court buildings by keeping a two-metre gap between people when not wearing a face covering, or one metre with a face covering.

This includes:

  • when queuing and going through security.
  • entering or leaving courtrooms
  • using 'one-in, one-out' systems for lift entry and exit

You should also avoid moving any furniture within the court room or consultation rooms which have been positioned to ensure social distancing can be adhered to.

You should encourage clients to limit the number of people who attend court with them in order to limit the footfall within the HMCTS buildings.

See HMCTS guidance on support available

You should wash your hands regularly, either in the facilities or using hand sanitiser provided in the waiting areas or inside the court rooms.

You're permitted to (and it's recommended that you) bring your own hand sanitiser to court. This will reduce the need to move unnecessarily around the building and will be easily accessible. Upon entering the court building, security officers will ask you to use it to make sure it's not harmful.

You should also have anti-viral wipes to hand for cleaning personal equipment such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones.

In addition to business as usual cleaning, HMCTS has introduced touch point cleaning which is a precautionary clean of frequently touched surfaces like handles and bannisters on stairways at regular intervals throughout the day.

If there are any areas of the building which indicate poor hygiene or problems that would prevent you and other court users from washing your hands, or if there are low supplies of soap and paper towels, you should immediately notify court staff or the daytime cleaners who will be wearing high-visibility 'cleaning support' jackets.

See the Cleaning Principles: Covid-19 and Non Covid-19 related

To reduce the time spent in the premises, when a hearing has finished you should leave the building as soon as possible.

We understand this may not be possible in certain instances such as:

  • you need to speak to you client afterwards
  • a client has a custodial sentence and you are required to see them in the custody suite/cell areas
  • you have another hearing listed at a different time

If you're required to attend court for a number of hearings in one day, you should enquire as to whether it is possible for these to be block listed.

Depending on the building, HMCTS will provide facilities for you to communicate remotely either by secure phone or other secure device – with your client in the cell areas. If this is not possible, you must wear a face covering (unless exempt) when attending the cells.

Maintaining social distancing in these areas can be very difficult, therefore staff in all cell areas/custody suites will be wearing PPE.

HMCTS has introduced fluid resistant surgical masks (FRSM) as an added assurance for professional users. Staff will provide FRSMs to professional users, intermediaries and interpreters on entry to the custody suite.   

Cell areas/custody suites’ arrangements vary between each court. Some interview rooms are screened while others are not.

If you have a concern about what arrangements are in place, you should contact the court before attending.

Prisoners are encouraged to wear masks, but it's not a legal requirement, and this is something to be aware of before attending.

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