Safety in courts

David Greene
David GreenePresident of the Law Society

Law Society president, David Greene, discusses recent safety concerns solicitors have raised on the potential risks they face when attending court.

Croydon law courts

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:

They have also requested the assistance of the profession in doing their part to keep courts safe:

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 hmctscourtreform@lawsociety.org.uk.