The managing director of a criminal defence firm says he is enraged that he is having to chase HM Courts & Tribunals Service for a court risk assessment so he can decide whether or not it is safe to send out his staff.
Michael Gray, who runs Chester firm Gray & Co Solicitors, has not sent any staff to court since lockdown restrictions were introduced in March. Over the past couple of weeks he says he has repeatedly asked to see HMCTS’s risk assessment for Warrington Magistrates’ Court - the only one of three courts operating in his area.
Gray told the Gazette: ‘I am concerned that the local risk assessments have not been provided to me and other solicitors in advance of the decision of HMCTS to require defendants on bail to attend at court. In my opinion, the decision to increase the work in the court estate is premature and HMCTS is taking an unnecessary risk.
‘There have been examples of good safety measures being put in place, for example video technology being used in overnight remand cases, but the court cannot operate in this way exclusively and they are now under pressure to push though more volume by requiring more people to attend in person.’
Gray is also losing income by not sending solicitors to court. 'That's why I'm enraged - I'm at my wit's end,' he said.
HMCTS states in an organisational risk assessment document on 15 May that it constantly monitors the arrangements in its buildings, using a local assessment tool.
On 25 May, Gray emailed HMCTS with 11 questions. These include where the defendants see their solicitors in the court, what measures are in place to ensure social distancing, and what facilities are in place for social distancing in the cells.
A letter sent on behalf of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association to HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood on Sunday states that ‘some of our member solicitors have requested copies of the local assessements and they have not been forthcoming. This essentially means that employers are unable to fulfil their own obligations under sections two and three of the Health and Safety at Work Act and subordinate legislation. We are concerned that the court estate is being opened to the public and profession court users alike, without these assessments being made available’.
Yesterday, HMCTS announced that 16 more courts were reopening this week after they were assessed to be suitable for holding socially-distanced hearings.
Law Society president Simon Davis said: ‘Where appropriate steps are taken to ensure good hygiene, appropriate distancing, and compliance with all other relevant guidance to minimise risk, courts should be safe to attend. This will be evident via the individual risk assessments for each site - which should be made available on request.
'We would be concerned if people were being asked to attend court before an assessment has been supplied. Where a court is failing to do so, this should be raised with HMCTS at the earliest opportunity.’
The Ministry of Justice has been approached for comment.
Update (1:30pm): Michael Gray received the risk assessment for Warrington Magistrates' Court.
Update (6.45pm): A HMCTS spokesperson said: 'Warrington Magistrates' Court was deemed safe after thorough checks and we have issued copies of the risk assessment to those who have requested it.'
*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.