Buildings operated by HM Courts and Tribunals Service are safe for those that need to use them, the organisation's acting chief executive has insisted.
Kevin Sadler said safety in courts and tribunals was paramount and HMCTS continued to meet all Public Health and Government COVID-secure guidance.
The acting CEO’s comments came amid increasing concern about safety during the latest lockdown.
Yesterday the Senior Presiding Judge, Lady Justice Thirlwall, and the Deputy Senior Presiding Judge, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, issued new guidance on the wearing of masks and face coverings in courts.
The Law Society has called for urgent action including a possible two-week pause of non-custodial Crown and magistrates’ court work pointing to "escalating safety concerns”, while the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association has advised its members that it was no longer safe to continue to attend Magistrates' courts.
However, in a blog last week (15 January) Mr Sadler wrote: “Whatever your role in the smooth-running of the justice system, it’s incumbent on us to work together in the safest way possible to keep justice going for every complainant, victim, witness and defendant. Justice cannot stop.”
He said he took the safety of courts very seriously. “We follow all Public Health and Government COVID-secure guidelines and have put measures in place to keep all court and tribunal users safe. This is under constant review through our risk assessment process – when Government/Public Health guidance changes our measures are updated; an approach which is endorsed by Public Health England and Public Health Wales. HMCTS staff and others inspect our policies and their implementation to ensure actions arising from these risk assessments are put in place and being followed.”
He highlighted social distancing measures in all HMCTS’ buildings, regular cleaning and, where appropriate, plexiglass screens “to name just a few mitigations”. He added that HMCTS supported the Lord Chief Justice’s message about remote hearings.
“Where a judge or magistrate has deemed it necessary and in the interests of justice, you should come to court if you are required to do so,” Sadler wrote. “If you need support, please just bring one person with you – such as a friend or family member. From the moment that you arrive, our buildings are safe for those that need to use them. You’re asked to always rigorously follow hands-face-space guidance – all our buildings display clear signage that support this requirement. Everyone has a personal responsibility to follow the guidance in our buildings, just as they do everywhere else in the community.”
Sadler added that where HMCTS is notified of positive (or suspected) cases in any of its buildings – whether that be a member of staff or other court users – it initiates its own contact-tracing alongside the NHS test and trace service. Where there are two or more cases, it conducts an investigation.
“In line with what is required of us, we alert local authority public health teams whenever the threshold for reporting is reached and act on their advice. This means that our policies, and how they are implemented at an operational level, are repeatedly reviewed by multiple experts who are independent of HMCTS,” he said.
He warned that the measures taken could not work “without everybody’s commitment to rigorously observing the hands, face, space guidance – and I need your help and vigilance to achieve this. Our sites are not close contact settings – but only if people follow the procedures in place and maintain a distance from each other.”
Sadler maintained that there had been no evidence that HMCTS’ sites were unsafe – “independent Public Health advice indicates that community transmission is the most likely source of the vast majority of cases where court and tribunal users have tested positive.”
He added that where Public Health England/Public Health Wales identified a small handful of possible in-court transmission it found that these were likely to be a result of individuals – not all of them court staff – breaching hands-space-face guidance.
“But I also recognise that the levels of concern have gone up and we continue to review all our measures to reassure all court and tribunal users that that our buildings are safe. Since the new strain of the virus and the increased transmissibility, we are supporting the Senior Presiding Judge’s guidance to the judiciary in support of the Lord Chief Justice’s message which included encouraging use of face coverings in court rooms. This will work alongside our other measures such as social distancing, ventilation, regular hand washing etc. We are also reducing numbers in courts and tribunals by encouraging more remote hearings and fewer on-site users.”