Inspectors have praised the Crown Prosecution Service for how well it was able to react quickly to the coronavirus crisis in a report published today. However, the inspection, covering 16 March to 8 May, revealed safety concerns from staff who had to attend court, including toilets that did not have soap.
The report states that the CPS was well placed to deal with the immediate crisis due to actions that the agency has taken since 2016 as part of a ‘CPS 2020’ strategy. The CPS regularly carries out mock disaster management events. Last November, managers tested a scenario where the CPS was hit by a cyber and terrorist attack.
The CPS was able to move its workforce from a mainly office-based service to home working overnight. Pre-lockdown around 500 people were working from home on any given day. On 24 March, 5,000 staff were working from home.
Three types of support packages were set up. Pack A comprised a laptop stand, keyboard and mouse. Pack B also had a screen for those involved in video hearings. Pack C included an adjustable chair. The CPS spent £140,000 on making the packages available to staff and over 250 were delivered by the end of April.
Staff who had to attend court or the office were financially supported. Travel and parking costs were paid so they could avoid public transport. Gloves, wipes and sanitiser were provided in CPS offices and CPS rooms in court.
All CPS staff have a £350 individual learning account, which was extended to cover services that support mental health and resilience. The CPS negotiated and secured key worker status for employees, who were not included in the government’s initial announcement.
However, the report also highlighted court concerns. The CPS committed to doing priority hearings and continuing necessary casework.
Inspectors said: ‘We were told, and have see risk assessments that show, that for the first few weeks of lockdown, many courts did not have the ability to allow for social distancing, and were not meeting the standards on hygiene set out by Public Health England. The toilets did not have soap, hand sanitiser or other anti-viral products, and appeared not to have been properly cleaned.’
Other concerns included prosecution and defence counsel having to speak into the same conference phone next to each other.
The CPS commissioned a health and safety assessment of court buildings where its advocates were attending in early April, which still flagged up concerns. ‘We have been told that HMCTS has since changed the contract for court cleaning and there has been a dramatic and welcome improvement in standards,’ inspectors said.
An HMCTS spokesperson told the Gazette: 'All of our open courts have been carefully risk-assessed to ensure they meet the standards required by Public Health England, and social distancing is in place at all publicly open and staffed courts. Our buildings are cleaned every day, we have allowed people to bring hand sanitiser into courts and we respond swiftly to complaints about poor hygiene.'
This particular inspection did not examine casework or the service provided to victims.