The FDA, as the union representing staff in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), has welcomed steps to restrict physical court hearings but more needs to be done to protect all those attending courts amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Across England and Wales, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has taken steps to restrict hearings to a limited number of existing cases in the Crown Court and only the most urgent cases in the Magistrates’ Court.
The decision followed calls by the FDA, spearheaded by National Officer Steven Littlewood, to suspend all but the most urgent cases in order to protect the health and safety of everyone who works in or uses the courts.
“We have been calling for these measures to be put in place since last week,” Littlewood explained. “And we welcome the movement from HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) support for it.”
Similar steps have also been taken in Scotland. In a letter to Eric McQueen, Chief Executive of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS), National Officer Allan Sampson welcomed the announcement to restrict court hearings in Scotland “to essential court business only” to assist with reducing the spread of coronavirus “and prioritise the health and safety of our members, the public and all court users”.
However, Sampson highlighted reports from members of poor hygiene facilities in some courts in recent weeks. Notably, this included “a lack of hand sanitiser or other cleaning materials” as well as “an inconsistent approach to social distancing, and in some places a complete lack of any distancing rules being observed”.
As such, Sampson has urged SCTS to conduct “an urgent risk assessment of all courts that are continuing to operate to confirm that they are safe to work in” alongside “confirmation of the measures that will be in place to ensure the social [spatial] distancing will be observed in all courts”.
“Our members are dedicated to ensuring that justice continues to function but this must not come at the cost of their own safety,” Sampson added.
According to Littlewood, this unfortunately echoes the experience of some of CPS members in England and Wales: “We have become increasingly concerned about reports from our members of insanitary conditions and poor facilities in courts in recent weeks. We’ve had members in tears about being asked to go into courts where staff are crammed in together with no access to soap or hand sanitiser.
“We are calling on HMCTS to carry out urgent risk assessments, and we are working directly with the CPS to agree the best way to ensure the safety of staff,” Littlewood explained. “In the meantime, we are advising members, in line with CPS guidance, to raise any issues with the judge or magistrate in the first instance and if the court is still unsafe then they should leave and contact the union.”