It has been reported that defence practitioners today staged a walk out of Bristol Magistrates' Court over unsafe working conditions, including a lack of social distancing, COVID compliant meeting rooms, and inadequate ventilation. The lack of risk assessments and wifi in the cells area has also been criticised.
It is damning that conditions in some criminal courts are so poor that this kind of action is necessary. Our first and second COVID-19 reports have revealed significant and persistent safety issues with in-person hearings during the pandemic despite HMCTS guidance, with magistrates’ courts particularly badly affected.
HMCTS have stated that “[f]acilities at Bristol Magistrates’ Court have been risk-assessed and comply with public health guidelines”. YLAL has been attempting to obtain magistrates’ court risk assessments since the guidance was published in May. YLAL’s members have contacted individual magistrates’ courts, the Ministry of Justice as a whole, and attempted to obtain copies when in attendance at courts in person but have not been able to do so.
YLAL’s members, as the most junior in the profession, are the ones most frequently in attendance in magistrates’ courts across the country. Our members are being forced to work in an environment that jeopardises their health. Not only are lawyers being put at risk of contracting coronavirus by the dire condition of magistrates’ courts across the country, but so too are complainants, witnesses, defendants, and court staff.
The UK Government must urgently address the chronic underfunding of our justice system, which has caused many court buildings to fall into states of disrepair and neglect, and ensure that safe working practices in the court system are meaningfully enforced. Risk assessments must be readily accessible. Proper standards of cleanliness must be maintained. Social distancing must be possible.
We call upon HMCTS to:
- Reassess the way in which magistrates’ courts are operating, ensuring they are in line with government guidance on COVID-19 and social distancing to ensure the safety of court users.
- Take steps to ensure individual risk assessments are displayed inside every court building.
- Publish up-to-date versions of each court’s risk assessments on the HMCTS website so they are easily accessible to all