Solicitor reveals ‘unsafe’ virus conditions for staff at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court
Staff have been told to keep working despite the coronavirus lockdown
27 March, 2020 — By Bronwen Weatherby
A DUTY solicitor believes conditions at one of London’s busiest courtrooms are “unsafe”, with staff told to keep on working despite coronavirus lockdown.
Rhean Bailey, from the Goldman Bailey Solicitors firm, said her experience at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court was that “there were no measures in place to protect court users”.
“There’s no hand sanitiser. No social distancing. No evidence of any kind of deep cleaning in the public areas,” she added.
“The court staff, many of whom I have known for years, were continuing to demonstrate extraordinary professionalism and kindness at a challenging time. But it was clear from speaking to them that they did not want to be there, and were still even then being told to carry on as if nothing had changed.”
“The only measure I saw to protect the staff were latex gloves, which were being worn all morning. I gather they were given a second pair for the afternoon session,” Ms Bailey added.
Lawyers, jurors, witnesses and defendants were still required to attend court up until Friday, despite government’s social distancing measures being in place.
On Monday, the Lord Chief Justice suspended new jury trials in Crown Court; however, magistrates’ courts were told to continue dealing with urgent work.
Ms Bailey said she took the unprecedented deci- sion to withdraw her firm from all “in-person court attendances” following her court visit.
She said: “After a day there, and having the time to review NHS advice and guidance over the week- end, I took the view this was an unsafe environment.
“While I appreciate changes have been made since Friday, nothing seems so significantly different that I can be sure of the safety of myself, my colleagues or my clients.
“The risk of onward transmission in any court environment strikes me as being huge.”
Ms Bailey said her staff would not be returning to court until videolink or telephone hearings were put in place or she is presented with a formal risk assessment confirming the courts are safe.
A number of London law firms have taken a similar position in order to protect their staff. Campaigning solicitor Greg Foxsmith, who was president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association from 2015- 2016, said the criminal justice system has been “slow to adapt to the onset of the coronavirus”.
He said: “Changes now coming in are welcome, but there is still more that could be done, and a good starting point would be to have a joined-up approach from policing to prison, rather than a confused and fragmented response.
“The primary focus has been on the Crown Court, and they have finally recognised that jury trials cannot continue at the present time.
“All trials will now be adjourned until the measures to restrict the spread of virus are lifted.”
Mr Foxsmith said Magistrates’ Court buildings have become dirty and dilapidated after years of underfunding, and coupled with a lack of sanitary provisions such as hand soap, it is an unsuitable working environment during such a pandemic.
“Also, the failure to schedule cases effectively means that everyone arrives at the same time and then waits, often for hours – sometimes all day, for their case to start,” he said.
Mr Foxsmith also raised concerns about the risk posed to prisoners who are forced to share a cell beneath the court and travel to and from court in a crowded Serco van.
Plea hearings and bail applications for urgent cases will now be conducted by videolink where practical but in some cases it will still be necessary for prosecution and defence lawyers to attend.
“There will clearly be a growing backlog of cases to deal with once the current crisis and the necessary restrictive measures have ended,” said Mr Foxsmith.
“What remains to be seen is whether in years to come there will be an improvement to the court estate, and the conditions for those who have to attend, and whether the videolink arrangements will be adopted more routinely.”
A HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesperson said: “NHS advice is for people to wash their hands with soap and water, which is available in all courts.
“We recently changed our security policy to allow people to also bring hand sanitiser into courts. “Our buildings are cleaned every day and we respond swiftly to complaints about poor hygiene.”