The CLSA is concerned that Police Stations and Courts are not safe during this current phase of the pandemic. The virus spread appears to be out of control. Many areas of the UK are seeing emergency services stretched beyond capacity. Previous ‘Covid secure’ steps appear to have in some instances been relaxed and in any event now appear to be doing little to stop the spread of the virus. We are unconvinced by the current ‘Covid Secure’ strategies being deployed and we are aware of outbreaks across the Court and prison estate. This puts defence lawyers and, indeed, all court users at risk of catching Covid and adding to the burden on the NHS.
We have seen our colleagues at the LCCSA raise specific suggestions for London where the virus has hit new highs and a state of emergency has been declared. Given the unique issues in London and parts of the South East we would support their calls for urgent changes.
We also support our brethren at the Bar in their calls for urgent measures in the Crown Court in particular.
As a national organisation we are concerned with the situation across the entire Criminal Justice System. It is an essential part of our democracy and must be able to function safely even in these times. The levels of infection vary nationally, but we are clear that no area would want to see an increase in line with those experienced in London and the South East where things are desperate. There are simple measures that can help, many of which have been suggested already. The starting point must be to reduce footfall in our Court and Police Station estates. This means focusing on ensuring those who are there in person actually need to be so; that their presence is essential. There are also common sense measures such as limiting the number of people in court buildings to court professionals and defendants with a hearing listed in the next 30 minutes, enforcement of social distancing, and regular court cleaning, which can and should be implemented immediately.
Insufficient use is being made of Video link access for lawyers, defendants and witnesses.
Without delay, the Courts must revert to position in Lockdown 1 that overnight remand prisoners are video linked to Court from the Custody Centre, and not physically transported which risks infection of gaolers and the Court. As the Lord Chief Justice has indicated, anything that can be done remotely, including trials, should be done that way. There should be a presumption that this is the case. Attendances in person should only take place where strictly necessary and unavoidable. Unnecessary and ineffective hearings must be avoided, and arrangements for listing must be further enhanced to ensure the minimum number of people are physically in Court at any one time, and should include listing of cases ‘by firm and/or representative’ to reduce the number of representatives that need to be at court at any one time.
We also ask the Government to ensure that all Police stations follow best practice and operate remote interviewing of suspects in order to protect officers, legal advisers , interviewees, interpreters and appropriate adults.
Where there are infections and outbreaks identified at a Court or police station, all those who were in attendance must be notified. This information cannot and should not be kept in the shadows. Updated risk assessments should also be made available.
If the Government wants the continued support of the Professions to keep the Courts functioning, something that is important for complainants, victims, witnesses, suspects and defendants, then Solicitors, Barristers and Legal Advisors alongside public-facing court staff, police and security staff must be made a priority for vaccinations after the clinically vulnerable have received theirs.
Any members with concerns as to Court safety at individual courts should raise them with the Court manager and inform the CLSA who will collate information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If there is not a significant improvement in the practice on the ground, many members may decide it is simply not safe to attend court. Members who feel a particular Court or Police Station is not safe might understandably choose not to attend, setting out their reasons to the Court or police station. This might lead to a delay in cases being dealt with but safety and avoiding pressure on the NHS is paramount.