Action needed to cut Covid-19 spread in courts

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Courts in England and Wales are ‘unsafe’ and have failed to implement Covid-19 secure measures across all buildings, organisations representing staff in the justice sector have claimed.

In a joint letter to HM Courts and Tribunals Service CEO Kevin Sadler, bodies representing solicitors, barristers, probation officers and court staff raised concerns about escalating levels of Covid-19 transmission in courts and tribunal buildings, with more than 600 positive cases recorded among professional court users since 24 November.

They said further action, including “potential political, legal and industrial responses”, such as strikes, would be necessary if action to ensure the safety of court users isn’t taken.

The letter says: “That remedial action must include the rapid introduction of lateral flow testing at every court and for every prisoner brought to court to ensure that all court users are tested negative before they enter buildings.

“All of those signatory organisations of this statement agree that the new Covid-19 variant is transmitting at a rate up to 70% higher than the first lockdown and that the priority must therefore be the safety and wellbeing of all court users, their families and their communities.”

The letter was signed by the Criminal Bar Association, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, the Solicitors’ Association of Higher Courts Advocates, the Public and Commercial Services Union, the FDA union, the National Association of Probation Officer and Family Courts, and the Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers association.

The Ministry of Justice has said was “simply untrue” to suggest people attending courts and tribunals were at an “elevated risk” of catching Covid-19, with a spokesperson stating that it was “clear that justice must continue to be done” and that court and tribunal buildings met Covid secure requirements.

The Lord Chief Justice has said remote hearings should be the default position during the pandemic, with no participant in legal proceedings required to attend court unless it is necessary in the interests of justice.

In a blog post earlier this month, HM Courts and Tribunals Service CEO Kevin Sadler said social distancing measures, plastic partitioning and increased cleaning were in place in all court buildings.

He said: “We are very far from complacent – we listen to suggestions for improvements, and routinely review standards and implementation, but we only implement additional measures where they are supported by public health officials and other experts and will make a difference to the safety of our buildings.

“Where Public Health England/Public Health Wales identified a small handful of possible in-court transmission it found that these were likely to be a result of individuals – not all of them court staff – breaching hands-space-face guidance.”

The letter comes amid a growing backlog of cases in England and Wales due to the pandemic. In the crown courts, 54,000 cases have yet to be heard.

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