21 January 2021

Lockdown or mockdown? Chaos in the courts service

Despite the fact so much more is known about how Covid 19 is transmitted, that the new strain is 70% more transmissible and the NHS is teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed, the HMCTS cry is ‘business as usual’.

What is happening is no reduction in the amount of work listed, irrespective of level of seriousness; a continued insistence that three magistrates sit whenever possible; withdrawal by police forces countrywide from the Cloud Video Platform which, when it works enables dealing with prisoners remotely; listing practices which don’t account for the need for frequent hand washing and cleaning of surfaces between cases and lead to too many parties attending at the same time in buildings which are too cramped and poorly ventilated to house them and staff safely.

Apparently, none of these issues require addressing to ensure the safety of court users or staff. If I hear that our buildings are “Covid secure” one more time I think I may scream. No building can be Covid secure unless there’s no one in it, all that any employer can do is reduce the risk to staff and users of the building as far as possible and I think we can be excused for being somewhat sceptical about the assurances of safety, given HMCTS’s performance so far.

Initially, it took weeks, if not months, to introduce even basic social distancing in court rooms. It is still frequently not adhered to with magistrates moving closer to discuss cases despite being directed not to. I look up from the computer and someone is standing within 2 metres of me or someone else in the courtroom.

Risk assessments are no more than a tick box exercise with lip service paid to consultation at best. Many magistrates’ court rooms still have no plexiglass screens when they were fitted in virtually every supermarket in the land in the blink of an eye.

As things have gone on complacency and fatigue in respect of safety measures seem to be creeping in. The frequency and thoroughness of touch cleaning varies greatly from building to building, there are a growing number of complaints that hand sanitiser, disinfectant wipes and so on are not available or not being replaced when empty. Some items aren’t even readily available but have to be asked for because they’re expensive; of course if you don’t know they’re there how do you know to ask? If we try and address these and other concerns with our managers we are simply met with the mantra that we are PHE compliant and we are left feeling as if we are being awkward or obstructive.

Compare and contrast the Scottish Courts approach to that of HMCTS. Despite the fact that they are Public Health Scotland compliant the Scottish Government’s view is that court work should be reduced to significantly reduce footfall for the benefit of the severely stretched NHS and the community as a whole. Not so in England where the view is do as much as possible.

And there is the rub, there seems to be a huge gap between what HMCTS views as safe and what the majority of staff do. Where is the recognition that we too have a moral duty to assist with reducing the risk of transmission in our communities and helping our exhausted public service colleagues in the NHS? The HMCTS stance looks uncaring and dismissive by comparison.

Staff are exhausted having worked through three lockdowns and trying to catch up with the backlog. They are also nervous at best, many downright terrified that the stance taken by HMCTS is playing Russian Roulette with not just their health but the health of their loved ones, as most of us do not exist in isolation outside the workplace.

With transmission rates being so high and 1 in 3 of those infected being asymptomatic, the blind insistence that buildings are safe looks complacent at best and arrogant at worst.

The service relies, as it has for many years, on the good will and big heartedness of staff willing to go the extra mile despite underfunding, understaffing and poor technology; efforts which do not receive the same public recognition as others because our service is not so media friendly as others. But I, for one, am coming to the conclusion that this service, one I have been proud to serve in for many years, is no longer worthy of that loyalty. My heart, at least, just isn’t in it any more. I shall need no persuading to vote yes in any PCS ballot to address this. We are our union and we must fight this together. Safety at work must stop being an optional extra.

Source URL: https://www.pcs.org.uk/news-events/blogs/lockdown-or-mockdown-chaos-courts-service