The London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association (LCCSA) has advised its members that it is not safe to continue to attend Magistrates’ courts.
In a call for action the LCCSA said its members were reporting that local magistrates’ courts were “once again too crowded and applications to appear remotely are being underused”.
Members had encountered security guards, custody staff and other court users not wearing masks as they conducted their business, it added. “Cells, consultation rooms and courts are poorly ventilated, too small to allow for social distancing and so frequently in use they cannot be disinfected.”
The LCSSA added that there were instances of defendants being brought from prison or a police station who had tested positive for Covid-19 or who were clearly symptomatic.
The Association said the timing of the police withdrawal of support for hosting overnight remand prisoners could not have been worse and represented a failure of government at the highest level. An accommodation could and should have been reached, it argued.
The LCSSA said it was calling for:
- The suspension of summary trials, save for those remanded in custody pending trial.
- All prosecutors, probation officers and defence advocates should appear at NGAP and GAP courts remotely by default. Courtrooms without CVP facilities should not be used for these case types.
- There should be a presumption that Defendants on bail, who have the means to use CVP in a private suitable space, should appear remotely at NGAP and GAP courts.
- During this emergency there should be an amendment to the relevant CPR / CPD to reflect the above presumptions at 2&3 and to require the decision maker to justify why it should not apply.
- Those with mental disorders or communication or learning difficulties, where their advocate argues remote participation is unsuitable, should have their cases adjourned in advance.
- Sentence hearings where the bench did not rule out the risk of custody should be adjourned. Those where a Community Order was to be considered should be heard remotely as per 2-4 above.
- The Ministry of Justice must accommodate the support needs of police forces to ensure overnight prisoners are once again hosted at police stations. In the meantime, HMCTS must ensure adequate numbers of confidential phone lines are installed in all courts to enable remote advice and representation.
- All Youth Court cases with defendants on bail should be adjourned for at least 4 weeks as remote participation is less suitable.
- Members of the public, save journalists, should not be permitted to enter magistrates’ courts. Attending someone else’s court hearing is not a reason to leave home during the lockdown. This would not apply to those assisting a court participant with a disability.
- Security guards should be provided with non-contact thermometers to check entrants to court buildings, as is the case for other sectors.
The LCCSA said: “The above envisages some defendants would still attend on bail or to answer a requisition, but overall reductions in footfall would ensure it is safer to do so. The above measures would still enable the justice system to function far more effectively than the first lockdown but would ensure a far safer environment for those left attending court.
“The current arrangements do not keep people safe and do not help protect the NHS or enable us to control the spread of infection to come out of lockdown. We seek to work with HMCTS to implement these changes. Without urgent change we cannot advise our members it is safe to continue to attend magistrates’ courts in London during this major incident.”
Earlier this month (5 January) the Lord Chancellor and the Courts Minister insisted that the work of courts and tribunals must continue either remotely or in person during fresh lockdown.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, also said the courts and tribunals must continue to function. “The position remains that attendance in person where necessary is permitted under the proposed new regulations.
However, the LCJ added: “The significant increase in the incidence of COVID-19 coupled with the increase in rates of transmission makes it all the more important that footfall in our courts is kept to a minimum. No participant in legal proceedings should be required by a judge or magistrate to attend court unless it is necessary in the interests of justice. Facilitating remote attendance of all or some of those involved in hearings is the default position in all jurisdictions, whether backed by regulations or not.”