Solicitors’ leaders warn two-week ‘pause’ of court work needed to stem infection
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A two-week suspension of almost all court hearings, including jury trials, may be needed amid rising fears about the spread of coronavirus, solicitors’ leaders have warned.
Protecting court workers and users from the virus is of the “utmost importance” and measures such as a temporary pause are the “least bad option” to ensure courts can operate safely, the Law Society of England and Wales said.
In a letter to HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), the Society said it has maintained throughout the pandemic that it is “essential” for justice to continue to be delivered, but said there are concerns about safety in light of the more transmissible Covid-19 variant circulating in recent weeks.
The Society’s president, David Greene, said if the current situation continues, it is “almost certain” that there will be a “significant loss of capacity” due to court closures caused by outbreaks of the virus.
The organisation suggests a two-week “pause” of all Crown and magistrates’ non-custodial work to allow those involved in court work to assure themselves about the safety of attending court, and to discuss measures to ensure safety.
Since the third national lockdown was announced we have received a significant amount of feedback from our members expressing serious concerns about the safety of court buildings
This should include pausing all Crown and magistrates’ work, including jury trials, except for instances where there are urgent custody matters, such as custody extensions, the Society said.
It also suggests a move to video hearings by default in all Crown and magistrates’ courts.
Mr Greene said: “Throughout the pandemic the Law Society has maintained that it is essential for justice to continue to be delivered.
“However, the safety of both court users and those who work within the justice system is of the utmost importance, especially given the new more easily transmissible coronavirus variant.
“Since the third national lockdown was announced we have received a significant amount of feedback from our members expressing serious concerns about the safety of court buildings, despite assurances from HMCTS that they are Covid-secure for the new variant.”
Mr Greene said the Society has welcomed steps taken by the Government to make court and tribunal buildings as safe as possible, but added that official figures showing record daily numbers of deaths and new infections “cannot be ignored”.
“By its nature, unless remotely accessed, the court process throws people together in limited space,” he said.
“Due to the rapid acceleration of transmission and the ever-increasing pressures on the NHS, we are now in a position where urgent action within the courts must be taken in order to ensure safety and to assist in the process of stemming the rate of infections and in ensuring that the NHS does not become overwhelmed.”
If the current situation continues, there is almost certain to be a significant loss of capacity due to court closures following outbreaks of coronavirus, and due to staff, lawyers, judiciary and parties falling sick
Mr Greene added: “We recognise that this conflicts with the imperative to mitigate the growing backlog of cases in the courts.
“However, if the current situation continues, there is almost certain to be a significant loss of capacity due to court closures following outbreaks of coronavirus, and due to staff, lawyers, judiciary and parties falling sick.
“We believe the measures we propose represent the least bad option for ensuring that courts can continue to operate safely.”
Earlier this week, Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society of England and Wales, told MPs there have been some instances of judges taking “patently unreasonable decisions” requiring in-person hearings.
He told the Commons justice committee: “There are many courts where sensible decisions are being taken but there are some where very minor and administrative hearings are being listed for in-person hearings, judges are refusing requests to have these cases held by video link, including where the advocate has said the reason why they are asking is because they are vulnerable and don’t want to risk exposure.
“There are some cases where judges are taking, what would appear from the outside, to be patently unreasonable decisions to require in-person hearings.”
He said these incidents are “fairly few and far between”.
We need testing brought in immediately. Testing kits should be on their way to all court centres now
In a new message to members, the Bar Council said it understands that some barristers have “taken the view that they do not consider it safe to attend court”.
It said it has been “seeking further information and reassurance over the course of the last fortnight, recognising that the situation is an evolving one with an increased risk of transmission everywhere”.
The Council, which represents around 27,000 barristers in England and Wales, said it is reviewing guidance provided by the authorities and “raising further urgent queries about this material and seeking additional information about risk management”.
It added: “In the meantime, we again ask all courts to follow the guidance of the Lord Chief Justice, and for hearings to be conducted remotely, save where evidence is to be heard.”
James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), warned safety measures are being introduced too slowly, and do not address concerns.
In a message to CBA members he also said the association had raised the issue of testing with HMCTS before Christmas as this “has always been a basic necessity”.
He said the CBA had been told a limited pilot scheme for lateral flow testing for court users is being developed, arguing “it is extraordinary that a pilot scheme is thought necessary for a testing process which has been administered in car parks up and down the land for many months”.
“We need testing brought in immediately. Testing kits should be on their way to all court centres now,” he added.
Mr Mulholland also said the CBA has been told that a case has been made to the Health Secretary that those who are critical justice workers should be prioritised for the next phase of the vaccine rollout, but there were no guarantees.
“If it is deemed essential that such a public service continues to operate, a fundamental condition of so doing must be a prioritisation as to vaccination,” he said.
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