The chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service has insisted that court buildings are safe from the moment of arrival, despite reports of ‘filthy’ bathrooms and busy public waiting areas.
In a government blog post, Kevin Sadler said there is ‘no evidence that our sites are unsafe’ with public health advice indicating that ‘community transmission is the most likely source of the vast majority of cases where court and tribunal users have tested positive’.
However, lawyers have claimed courts have become a ‘breeding ground’ for the virus. A barrister attending Watford Family Court this week said she was forced to sit with her client in a public waiting area in non-socially distanced conditions after being told there were no rooms available.
The barrister’s bag was also handled by security after her identity card was refused.
City firm Hodge Jones & Allen has also criticised the court system’s ‘business as usual’ mentality after one of its criminal law solicitors tested positive for Covid-19 after meeting a client at Highbury Magistrates’ Court.
Figures published by the Criminal Bar Association indicate that 288 Covid-19 cases were recorded by HMCTS between 24 November 2020 and 11 January 2021. However, the Public and Commercial Services union claim HMCTS was notified of 240 Covid incidents on 4 January alone, including 88 positive test results.
Calls for stronger safety measures have grown louder in recent days. Last week the Law Society called for urgent action including a possible two week pause of non-custodial Crown and magistrates’ court work. Meanwhile, the Criminal Bar Association has insisted that court users are tested before attending hearings and trials.
Asked whether the government plans to limit eligibility for jury service during the pandemic, Chris Philp MP, minister for immigration compliance and the courts, said the situation is kept under review.
‘Some people will have difficulty serving at this point and HMCTS has issued guidance to help staff deal sympathetically with all requests from the public who wish to be deferred or excused from jury service as a result of Covid-19.
‘Each application for deferral or excusal is considered on its own merit, in a way that is both fair to the individual and consistent with the needs of the court in providing a representative jury. We are keeping the situation under constant review.’