Civil service unions have called on the acting chief executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service to launch an immediate review of Covid safety measures after 600 justice professionals tested positive for the virus over the past two months.
The joint approach, which includes PCS, the FDA and the Prison Officers Association, says HMCTS has “failed to take timely and appropriate action to improve safety arrangements” as levels of transmission of Covid-19 in courts and tribunals buildings have escalated.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the additional measures being sought from HMCTS acting chief Kevin Sadler included lateral flow testing at every court and for every prisoner brought to court, to ensure all court users test negative before they enter buildings.
“The new Covid-19 variant is transmitting at a rate up to 70% higher than the first lockdown,” he said. “The priority must therefore be the safety and well-being of all court users, their families and their communities.”
Serwotka said HMCTS had repeatedly given assurances that “all available measures” were being implemented, but the evidence and repeated concerns raised demonstrated that those measures are inadequate.
“The recurrent claims that courts and tribunals are safe and Covid-secure bear no resemblance to the reality of the conditions in most buildings across the estate,” he said.
“Our calls for safety for all court users are realistic and achievable and must be met as a matter of urgency.
“We expect HMCTS to rectify the current situation by taking the appropriate actions necessary to ensure the safety of all who attend court. Failure to do so will result in potential political, legal and industrial responses.”
The Ministry of Justice said HMCTS was exploring whether additional Covid-19 testing could be used, beyond the existing programme of testing prisoners on reception to custody.
But it disputed the suggestion that there had been 600 positive coronavirus cases among professional court users since 24 November. It said the figure referred to all court users and so included jurors, court visitors, defendants and HMCTS staff.
An MoJ spokesperson said the government had been clear throughout the pandemic that justice must continue to be done.
“Every building we operate meets the government’s Covid-secure guidelines, and public health experts have confirmed our arrangements remain sufficient to deal with the new strain of the virus,” they said.
In his January 15 “Inside HMCTS” blog, acting CEO Sadler recognised the existence of concerns about safety but stressed the issue was taken 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,” he wrote.
“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.”
A January 18 comment beneath the blog’s main text contained a detailed account of a recent court visit that alleged safety measures were not widely adhered to in that professional's experience.
It detailed a list of shortcomings inside the court building, but accepted measures inside the court room were more strictly enforced.