TThe government has been accused of “pretending” to defend the security of Covid-19 in the courts as concerns emerge over efforts to tackle transmission within the justice system.
Courts in England and Wales have remained open throughout the pandemic, relying heavily on a policy of weekly inspections of its buildings by senior officials and a traffic light system to raise concerns about urgent security.
However, an investigation by the Evening Standard has now revealed significant concerns about the oversight of these security regimes in London courthouses last year.
HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) insists its courts have been kept ‘secured by Covid’ and that security measures have been tightly monitored over the past 15 months.
But a third of the weekly assessments that were supposed to have been carried out between May and December last year in London criminal courts are missing from government records.
An analysis of the reports that have been written reveals that maintenance issues have gone unresolved for months, while some staff seem to have misunderstood how the security system was supposed to work.
“The government has pretended to talk about health and safety,” criminal lawyer Tony Wyatt said, adding that the fault lies with the politicians who “decimated” the workforce of the justice system.
“The Courts Service has a security system in place and expects it to be run by people who have not been properly trained and have a hundred other things to do. “
The PCS union, which represents thousands of justice workers, said its efforts to review court safety assessments had been repeatedly postponed during the pandemic, and accused the government of implementing a ” checkbox exercise ”instead of more rigorous health and safety controls.
When the pandemic first struck, 157 courts remained open while those that were temporarily closed gradually reopened in May and June.
A “Covid-19 assessment tool” was developed for all courts and implemented at the end of May 2020, giving managers a list of mandatory security measures, including one-way systems, reduced furniture to ensure distancing social and daily cleaning regimes.
Courts have been ordered to limit the number of people in court buildings, maintain ventilation systems and make hand sanitizer available to staff and visitors.
The Standard found that some of London’s courts consistently classified themselves as “green” – indicating no issues – despite reporting a litany of issues that needed to be resolved. Other court administrators signed their reports as “orange” but did not record the issues they faced.
The inspector found that the document had not been shared with staff, while the bosses who completed it had no health and safety qualifications but “may have attended a briefing on how to write risk assessments in the distant past ”.
She ordered court administrators to review their security arrangements, concluding: “In the event that a person becomes positive for COVID, it is very realistic that it could largely affect all premises and possibly the general public as well. . “
The Justice Ministry’s pandemic contingency plan insists on a regular weekly flow of information from the courts “to maintain the integrity and accuracy of the information that will be provided to ministers.” However, records show worrying discrepancies of up to four months between updated security assessments in some locations.
It is understood that some court managers were “overwriting” old assessments and not keeping a consistent record of security checks, a practice that was only identified and stopped in February of this year.
On October 15 last year, Ealing Magistrates’ Court received a “red” note, which according to the rules “requires the building to be closed”, an urgent action plan and alerts sent to HMCTS Gold Command. It is understood that the problem – which was not clearly recorded on the Covid-19 assessment – has been corrected to allow the court to open normally the next day. But the next properly recorded assessment took place almost a month later and makes no mention of what action was taken.
Records also show that it took three months for a boiler to be repaired at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court – affecting hot water availability – and the same court reported problems with its ventilation system which were not resolved between May and December.
A Legionella outbreak in the water system was detected at Inner London Crown Court after the building was temporarily closed at the start of the pandemic. The June 2020 evaluations noted that security testing was “required before opening.”
While it is understood that the water was deemed safe enough for the reopening to proceed as planned in early July, the success of the water tests was not recorded until four months later.
“There is a question about the competence of those who are supposed to undertake risk assessments,” said Laura Bee of the PCS union. “They’re not being used effectively, it’s almost like it’s a checkbox exercise to say they’re reviewed on a weekly basis, although some courts aren’t. “
In a speech to Parliament last December, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said £ 83million had been invested to make the judiciary ‘secure by Covid’.
“The work that is being done to make our courts safe is done in collaboration with Public Health England and Public Health Wales,” he said, adding: “I believe in the local initiative and have seen it in action from the staff of HMCTS, who know the buildings, in which some of them have worked for many years, better than anyone.
Mr Wyatt caught Covid-19 and believes the transmission occurred when he was in court last year, telling The Standard it was “terribly obvious” that court users were at risk of infection : “Whatever system they had in place, it was not prosecuted as severely as it should have been.
The HMCTS said its approach to pandemic safety has been endorsed by public health authorities and the number of virus cases among court users has followed national trends.
It said the safety assessments of its buildings have been closely monitored, while around 60,000 maintenance and repair tasks have been completed since April last year.
A spokesperson said: “All of our courts and tribunals are secure against Covid and have been checked regularly throughout the pandemic to ensure they meet strict public health standards. “