Coronavirus

Coronavirus (COVID-19) 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 updated our guidance and best practice based on government guidance.

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

The shielding programme has now ended in England.

In Wales, since April 2021 those on the Shielding Patient List are no longer advised to follow shielding measures.

This means that people who were previously considered clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV)  are not currently advised to shield or follow specific national guidance. If this applies to you, you should have received a letter informing you of the changes.

Letter for patients in England

Letter for patients in Wales

The UK government states that it'll continue to assess the situation and the risks posed by COVID-19 and, based on clinical advice, will respond accordingly to keep the most vulnerable safe.

As a minimum, you should continue to follow the same guidance on staying safe and preventing the spread of COVID-19. You should consider advice from your health professional on whether additional precautions are right for you.

Your employer must also take extra steps to keep you safe.

In England, you should discuss your individual needs with your employer who should support you in taking additional precautions advised by your clinician.

Read further guidance for England

In Wales, you should continue to work from home if possible, however you can return to work if your workplace is COVID secure (please refer to the ‘Risk assessment’ section).

Read further guidance for Wales

Other guidance

ACAS guidance: People at high risk from COVID-19

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on protecting vulnerable workers

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

The UK government removed most legal restrictions to control COVID-19 in July 2021.

The Welsh government removed similar restrictions in August 2021, however it is still a legal requirement to wear a face covering in court and tribunal buildings in Wales.

This means that courts and tribunals are open for face-to-face hearings, such as jury trials.

HMCTS continues to work with public health organisations to ensure they comply with health and safety standards.

Read guidance for England

Read guidance for Wales

To reduce the risk of the virus spreading, HMCTS maintains the following requirements:

  • all users are required to wear a face covering in public and communal parts of the court and tribunal buildings (see 'Face covering')
  • using screens or barriers to separate people coming into close proximity with others they do not normally meet
  • assessing the estate for ventilation, continuing with existing ventilation standards
  • using carbon dioxide monitors as additional assurance in building areas identified through the risk assessment process

You should not put yourself or your staff into situations which breach the guidance or that 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 ‘Reporting concerns’ for more 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 can make a complaint to the Health and Safety Executive.

HMCTS encourages you to take a free, rapid lateral flow COVID-19 test before coming to a court or tribunal building. These are readily available, or you can order a test online.

If you have coronavirus symptoms, you should book a PCR test through GOV.UK and not come to court or to a tribunal. This is a full test, rather than a rapid lateral flow device test.

Read more about testing in Wales

Positive test results

It remains essential that if you get a positive result from a lateral flow device test, you should self-isolate immediately and book a PCR test.

Other members of their household will need to check if they need to self-isolate.

Positive results must be reported to any court building you may have attended following a test.

Self-isolation

If you have COVID-19 symptoms, you should:

  • stay at home and self-isolate immediately
  • arrange to have a PCR test as soon as possible (if this PCR test is positive, you must continue to self-isolate)

If you do not have COVID-19 symptoms, but you have a positive PCR test result, you must stay at home and self-isolate.

If you live in the same household as someone with COVID-19, you must stay at home and self-isolate if:

  • you are not fully vaccinated, or
  • they have been identified as a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19

If you live in the same household as someone with COVID-19, you are not required to self-isolate if you:

  • they have not been identified as a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant, and
  • you are fully vaccinated

Fully vaccinated means that:

  • you've been vaccinated with an MHRA-approved COVID-19 vaccine in the UK, and
  • at least 14 days have passed since you received the recommended doses of that vaccine

You should follow the relevant self-isolation rules for England and Wales.

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

  • have tested positive for COVID-19
  • have coronavirus symptoms: a new continuous cough; a high temperature; a loss of, or change in, your normal sense of smell or taste
  • are self-isolating
  • are waiting for a test result
  • are quarantining after returning from travel abroad
  • have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, and you are not double vaccinated

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

You should make sure you're on your 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.

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.

Tools

Organisational risk assessment

Local assessment tool – England

Local assessment tool – Wales

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.

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 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

Based on public health expert advice, HMCTS continues to require all court users to wear face coverings when attending a court or tribunal building.

In Wales, it's still a legal requirement for face coverings to be worn in court and tribunal buildings.

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 evidence

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.

Exemption card – England

Exemption card – Wales

Following the lifting of restrictions, court and tribunal buildings in England and Wales have minimal social distancing in place. The government does state however, that people should still consider the risks of close contact.

To help reduce the risk of the virus spreading, HMCTS staff may:

  • advise you to leave empty seats between you and other people in the waiting area
  • restrict the number of people using the toilets or washrooms at any given point in time
  • advise when you can enter or leave courtrooms, to avoid cross-traffic in the doors and restrict the number of people in court or in the public galleries at any point in time

Even if you are a wearing a face covering you should consider maintaining social distancing whilst in the court buildings.

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.

The most recent review by the Prison Escort and Custody Service (PECS), HM Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS) and UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA), formerly Public Health England) has indicated that HMCTS can take steps to increase custody suite capacity safely, primarily in light of the improved COVID-19 risk profile of prisons.

This means that defendants will be able to share cells where there is enough space to adequately maintain social distancing and where other risk mitigations are in place.

PECS will continue to carry out a cell sharing risk assessment (CRSA) and, if deemed safe and suitable, prisoners will be able to share cells. They will also ensure that visits are conducted safely and practically within the confines of the custody suite.

The changes brought about by this guidance do not affect the other risk mitigation measures already in place in custody suites:

  • use of fluid resistant face masks (FRSMs) by custody staff and visitors
  • social distancing within communal areas of the custody suite (where practical)
  • regular touchpoint cleaning
  • use of locked down mobile phones and landlines to allow remote consultations and to limit footfall into the custody suites

Read HMPPS' guidance on using holding rooms in court buildings (PDF 296 KB)

If a remote consultation is not possible, you must wear a face covering (unless exempt) when attending the cells. HMCTS will supply FRSMs to professional users, interpreters and intermediaries to wear while providing legal consultation in custody suites.

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

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.