HMCTS - Safe working in the criminal digital courtrooms

03 May 2019

Since HMCTS first raised the concept of computer use in the court room, long before Libra, DMU, Crest and Exhibit were introduced, PCS has raised and continues to raise concerns regarding HMCTS meeting its obligations in relation to ensuring our members can work safely in courtrooms.

The area in court rooms where legal advisers, court associates and court clerks sit was designed to be a bench rather than a work station. It was also designed well before the introduction of video/virtual hearings.  The court room environment brings significant risks that do not exist in the office environment, all of which must be considered and addressed in the risk assessment process.

Assessing but not removing risk

Unlike in the crown court, on the introduction of Crest and Exhibit, PCS is aware that when Libra was introduced, 'risk assessments' of all magistrates' court room work stations were undertaken. However, we also are aware that at many locations the measures that were required to reduce or remove the risks identified were never put in place. This may have been in part because HMCS did not consider DSE users to be full users to whom the regulations applied. The “assessments” also focussed on the “work stations”, rather than taking a holistic approach to all aspects of court room safety.

HMCTS perhaps unsurprisingly has never seen the introduction of new ways of working as being the cause of the problem. While they may not be, as the problem is far older, the proposed increase in work so that lawyers and clerks feel that they have become first and foremost computer operatives does not remove the HMCTS duty of care towards its staff. It makes it vital that members can work comfortably and safely without risk of injury.

We are advised by HMCTS at a national level that appropriate measures have been put in place to ensure that locally health and safety obligations are met and that where they wish to be, the trade union side is involved in the risk assessment process. We are further advised that risk registers do not reflect that there are significant issues in any cluster or region

Whilst PCS accepts that this may have been confirmed by HMCTS nationally we maintain that in many areas this does not reflect the reality. We maintain that this is for many reasons. In some areas:

  • there is a general lack of awareness that reps should be and want to be included in the process.
  • the risks in relation to DSE are being looked at in isolation to the other risks of courtroom working (for example monitor positioning obscures sight lines of court users). It may be the case that those carrying out the assessments are not trained in general risk assessment in addition to DSE assessments
  • Members are having a risk assessment at an office based desk and are receiving advice that cannot be translated into the court room environment because of the way the court room is set up
  • Members have previously and repeatedly raised issues before court takers were considered essential DSU users and were advised that for a variety of reasons that the issue could not be addressed

PCS has been given an assurance that HMCTS will investigate any issues we raise of non-compliance with health and safety requirements in any of our court rooms or hearing rooms. We have also sought and received an assurance that any member who raises a concern in the way we are proposing will not find that raising these concerns is interpreted as “not embracing digital working” or any other negative behaviour.

PCS has also been given an assurance that HMCTS will work with PCS to address the issues that we have raised and to review the risk assessment templates for the court room specific environments.

PCS maintains that all our members should be able to work in a safe working environment. PCS further maintains that the ability to work safely in a digital court room is a key matter to be considered before any decision should be made to use DMU, Store, Crest or Exhibit in any court room and to introduce paperless courts.

 

Help PCS to help you

What you are asked to do:

  • Ask for a copy of the DSE assessment for the individual court room workstation and the risk assessment for working in a court room environment for each of the court rooms and single justice procedure rooms in which you are required to work and ask whether your trade union health and safety representative was consulted in the drawing up of that risk assessment.
  • Ascertain whether the control measures that have been identified have been put in place. Where a risk assessment identifies problems, ask what action has been taken to deal with any issues (the risk assessment should indicate the action to be taken – this is not just a form-filling exercise). Escalating a matter to estates or similar is not a control measure. It is a mechanism to ensure that a business case is put forward to pay for remedial measures that are needed. If remedial measures are required the employer is required to identify an interim solution to remove or reduce the risk.  The risk rating given should reflect control measures that are in place not those that are on a wish list. It is helpful to take photographs of hazards you identify to demonstrate what you are referring to.
  • Forward a copy of the assessment and any photographs to midsbargaining@pcs.org.uk. Head the email Courtroom workstation /DSE / risk assessment and state the name of the court i.e. Anytown Crown Court or Someplace “Magistrates' Court”. The risk assessment together with any photographs will be evidence as to whether or not HMCTS is meeting their obligations as we are advised
  • If no risk assessment and or DSE assessment on the workstation has taken place within the last 12 months, request that one takes place and request that a PCS health and safety rep attends. If you are unaware as to who your local representative is, contact your branch or midsbargaining@pcs.org.uk or the author of this briefing.
  • Ask for a personal display screen equipment (DSE) assessment in a court room or hearing room in which you work. If you are advised as to how to adjust your work station for safe working but it is not possible to follow that advice in specific court rooms ask to be shown how you work safely in that court room. If for example the depth of the bench is too shallow ask how you can sit and work with the monitor approximately an arms distance away. If the monitor obstructs your view of advocates, your usher or the defendant or the public gallery, ask what measures are in place to ensure that lines of sight are not obscured and that you can protect yourself from the threat of violence and from not having to twist, bend and stretch around your monitor to have those conversations that are essential to progressing the business of the court.
  • Consider during that assessment whether or not you can adopt a safe and comfortable working position. For example,
  1. Can you sit with
  • shoulders relaxed
  • good lumbar support
  • arms bent at elbows at approximately 90 degrees
  • forearms approximately horizontal
  • your wrists in line with your forearm and move all up, down or sideways?

      2. Is there:

  • a fully adjustable chair
  • sufficient space in front of the keyboard to provide support for your hands and wrists during pauses in keying
  • Sufficient space for postural change and to vary movements with no obstacles under the desk
  • Sufficient space for flexible arrangement of equipment and documents
  • Adequate space for you to adopt a comfortable position?

     3.Can you see those whom you need to in court without having to bend around equipment?

  • Defendant
  • Prosecutor
  • Defence advocate
  • Usher
  • Probation and youth offending team officers
  • Witnesses giving evidence
  • Public gallery.

     4. Is your work planned so that their work on DSE equipment is periodically interrupted by such breaks or changes of activity as to reduce the workload at the equipment? If the work cannot be so organised, have deliberate breaks been introduced? If not, they should be. It is acknowledged in some courts this is easier than others. In a trial court in the magistrates’ court, making a handwritten note of the notes of evidence will have the desired effect. In a gap or remand court, unless benches retire facilitating a change of activity (catching up on resulting, doing SOP checks or box work is not a change of activity) a short break should be introduced and you should take the opportunity to get up, stretch and change your posture.

While the above questions do not cover all of the issues that ensure a healthy and safe working environment, it is these issues that in the experience of PCS are overlooked and ignored. Please ensure you report any concerns to both your line manager and PCS rep. If HMCTS is overlooking or ignoring these issues it is not meeting its legal duty of care towards you and may put you at risk of musculoskeletal disorders, upper arm disorders and repetitive strain injury.

Staying in the same position and concentrating for a long time and poor positioning of DSE are also associated with temporary visual fatigue, leading to an array of symptoms such as impaired visual performance (e.g. blurred vision) red or sore eyes and headaches or the adoption of awkward posture which can cause further bodily discomfort. If you feel you are affected you should report it in writing to your line manager and PCS rep.

 

Stress

Software that is poorly designed or inappropriate for the task will impede the efficient completion of the work and in some cases may cause stress for users. Many symptoms described by DSE workers reflect stresses arising from their work. Symptoms may be linked to upper limb or visual problems but there is evidence that stress often contributes as well. If you feel that working digitally is or may be causing you stress, again report it in writing to your line manager and PCS rep. 

Work-related stress is a health factor which should be risk-assessed. Once made aware of the issue, your line manager has a responsibility to take action.  If your colleagues are experiencing the same problem it may be worth all of you raising the issue so that more evidence can be gathered to propose different ways of working. Your local PCS reps will be able to help with advice on how to produce good quality work-related stress risk assessments which can lead to practical changes at work.

Please assist us to assist you.

Keep up to date with PCS campaigns and news by supplying your non-work contact details visiting www.pcs.org.uk/member-login

For group campaign and news updates visit www.pcs.org.uk/moj

If you require this publication in any other format such as Braille or large print please contact the HQ bargaining general office on 0121 643 4342 and this service can be arranged for you.

 

                                                                        Karen Watts

                                    PCS MoJ Group Assistant Secretary

karenw@pcs.org.uk

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