Court bosses this week insisted that a Yorkshire court is safe after closing the building for a day following a Covid-19 outbreak.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service said that in line with government guidance, Doncaster Justice Centre North had closed last Thursday after a ‘small number’ of staff and court users developed symptoms of the disease. The building reopened the following day after a deep clean and has continued to operate this week.
An HMCTS spokesperson said the courts service is following all public health and government Covid-secure guidelines and has put measures in place to keep court and tribunal users safe. These measures are under constant review.
But a court worker based at Doncaster has told the Gazette the extent of the outbreak was much wider than has been acknowledged. It is claimed that 12 members of staff and two solicitors have come down with coronavirus symptoms and that track and trace messages were sent urging people to self-isolate in the middle of last week.
Social distancing is in place in the buildings, but the court worker said too many people are being required to attend for face-to-face hearings to ensure this is enforced.
The outbreak comes at a time when tensions are high over the continued opening of courts and tribunals during the lockdown. Many lawyers have reported on social media they feel they are being forced to come into court buildings for hearings that could be held remotely.
The Gazette is aware of at least one case where defence solicitors have claimed they have met with clients without being informed that those clients have shown symptoms of Covid.
Figures published this week suggest that physical hearings were becoming much more common during the previous period of restrictions at the end of 2020, as the number of remote hearings fell away.
In a response to a written parliamentary question, justice minister Chris Philp MP said that 67,004 physical hearings were conducted in December compared with 60,453 remote hearings. In June and July almost 191,000 remote hearings were held compared with just 73,000 physical hearings.
Philp added: ‘The decision to deal with a hearing or part of a hearing remotely is a matter for the judiciary, who have been considering restrictions, transmission rates, social distancing concerns and the nature of audio and video since the beginning of the pandemic.’