Lawyers and trade unions have joined forces to tell HM Courts & Tribunals Service boss Kevin Sadler to step up safety measures at court or face a ‘political, legal and industrial’ response.
The statement calling for action has been signed by the Criminal Bar Association, Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, Solicitors’ Association of Higher Courts Advocates, Public and Commercial Services Union, FDA (a union representing Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors), National Association of Probation Officers and Family Courts, and Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers.
The bodies call for an immediate review of safety arrangements across the court estate amid growing concerns that the buildings are not, as HMCTS has repeatedly claimed, ‘Covid secure’.
‘Confirmation of over 600 positive cases amongst professional court users since 24 November across the HMCTS estate, evidences the alarming extent of the crisis emerging in the justice sector. If HMCTS continue to fail to take remedial action to ensure that transmission levels are significantly reduced and professional, lay and public court users remain safe then further action will be necessary.’
HMCTS is told to quickly introduce lateral flow testing at every court and for every prisoner brought to court to ensure all court users test negative for the coronavirus before they enter the building.
‘Despite HMCTS continuing to give assurances that they are implementing all available measures the evidence and repeated concerns raised demonstrate that these measures are inadequate. The recurrent claims that courts and tribunals are safe and covid-19 secure bear no resemblance to the reality of the conditions in most buildings across the estate,’ the statement says.
Earlier this week Hodge Jones & Allen confirmed that one of its criminal defence solicitors tested positive for Covid after seeing a client at court.
The statement says: ‘We expect HMCTS to rectify the current situation by taking the appropriate actions necessary to ensure the safety of all who attend court. Failure to do so will result in potential political, legal and industrial responses from some of the signatory organisations of this statement.’
The joint statement follows calls by the Law Society for a two-week pause on all Crown court and magistrates’ court non-custody work.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: 'Throughout this pandemic the government has been clear that justice must continue to be done. Every building we operate meets the government’s Covid-secure guidelines, and public health experts have confirmed our arrangements remain sufficient to deal with the new strain of the virus.
'Positive test numbers are consistent with the wider community and it’s likely that the vast majority contracted the virus outside courts. It is simply untrue to suggest people are at an elevated risk of infection when at a court or tribunal.'
The MoJ said the claim of 600 positive cases among professional court users since 24 November is untrue and says the figure refers to all court users.
HMCTS has said it is working with the Department of Health and Social Care ‘to understand whether rapid testing could be delivered in a court setting’.