A duty solicitor was told by a judge she should not be in court if she was not prepared to go to the cells due to coronavirus concerns and her case was given to another solicitor in court, the Gazette has been told.
The incident, among others, prompted the duty solicitor’s firm, GT Stewart, to complain directly to HM Courts & Tribunals chief executive Susan Acland-Hood.
In the email to Acland-Hood, the firm said that at two magistrates' courts, defendants had been physically produced at court, into the cells, despite displaying Covid-19 symptoms.
‘When our lawyers have tried to mitigate the risks to themselves and others by asking for a court room to be opened to accommodate their attendance on the client (the defendant can be brought into the secure dock through the normal route for defendants brought to court in custody) their requests have been met with the response that they should either attend the client in the cells in person or withdraw from the case so a lawyer can be found who will do so. This has placed our lawyers in an invidious position given their duty to their client and the court. This is happening on a daily basis throughout London,’ the firm said.
‘We had one of our lawyers attend a magistrates’ court as duty solicitor. In an attempt to follow a safe protocol our lawyer made the application for her clients to be brought into the court. This was refused and our lawyer was told she should not be at court if she was not prepared to go into the cells. The judge then purported to give the duty to another solicitor at court.’
Greg Stewart, managing director of GT Stewart, told the Gazette that courts in Kent and Leeds have been proactive when it comes to solicitors’ safety. ‘London seems to have a complete blind spot about this,’ he said.
The firm, in its letter, said it contacted Acland-Hood ‘because we take the view that this is not a judicial issue but one of operational policy affecting the safety of all of us who are doing our best to maintain the rule of law at this exceptional time’.
It added: 'We would be grateful if you would investigate the concerns raised and immediately direct judges sitting at HMCTS to desist from making such demands of defence lawyers otherwise we will have no option but to seek urgent legal advice concerning the safety of our employees and the potential loss to this firm.'
HMCTS has been approached for comment.
A spokesperson for the judiciary said: ‘The lord chief justice gave very clear written guidance to all judges and magistrates that hearings must be held in a safe way. The judiciary will engage with any issues that are raised in an official capacity - no such complaint has yet been received by the chief magistrate who is the senior district judge hearing cases in the magistrates’ courts.’
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.