From 27 May 2020, anyone visiting a court can ask at reception to see the bespoke risk assessment of the specific court that they are attending.
When the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’ was announced on 23 March 2020, ‘remote’ hearings became the default position for all Crown court matters. However, on 11 May, Leeds Crown Court resumed face-to-face hearings for bail PTPH cases.
Many advocates and members of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community have expressed concerns that this move went against medical advice, with some refusing to attend court unless a remote hearing could be arranged.
On 18 May 2020, the Recorder of Leeds, His Honour Judge Kearl QC, gave me a guided tour of the newly ‘deep-cleaned’ Leeds Crown Court to show me what safety measures have been put in place.
The court is listing only around 50 cases a week, so it was hardly surprising that the foyer was virtually deserted when I arrived, except for the security staff who were wearing masks. Each case has 45-minute time slot, and only two face-to-face cases will be running in the building at any one time, with each case on a separate floor.
The first noticeable difference is that getting through security has been streamlined, as long as you have the professional users' ID app on a device. In addition, robes are not required so it is possible to travel light.
What is striking is the effort that has been made to promote and maintain the feeling of safety and social distancing. Hand sanitiser is available throughout the building. There are distance markings on the floor and arrows which show the strict one-way system around the building. Lifts are now out of bounds, save for those with mobility issues. Marshals in high vis jackets sit at the bottom of each set of stairs. You can only proceed if you get the all-clear that there is no one else on the staircase.
Marshals are also stationed on the landing to ensure that social distancing is maintained while people wait to enter court, and almost every seat is cordoned off; you have to look very hard to find one that is not. The cordons continue into the courtroom itself, where almost all the seating is blocked off. With the sea of bright orange signage on every single unavailable seat, the restrictions are certainly clear, if a bit over-the-top.
Once the hearing is finished, all parties must leave the court building via a separate exit and follow the one-way system, in order to avoid coming into contact with those attending for the next hearings. I was assured by the Recorder that counsel’s benches are disinfected by cleaners before the next case is called on, and that cleaning staff are constantly moving around the building to clean surfaces such as door handles and tables.
Many who have used the system have commented on how smoothly it runs and how safe they felt. But is it safe in reality? Judge Kearl QC accepts that there have not been any health or risk assessments undertaken and that the system has been largely designed by himself and court staff following guidance from the government and Public Health England.
On 15 May 2020, HMCTS published an Organisational Covid-19 Risk Assessment document and the Bar Council understands that, from 27 May 2020, anyone visiting a court can ask at reception to see the bespoke risk assessment of the specific court that they are attending. In addition, in every court building there should be a named individual to whom any concerns can be addressed (see Bar Council Statement 22 May 2020 and HMCTS coronavirus safety controls). Judge Kearl QC has confirmed that, as of 27 May, Leeds Crown Court will have the required risk assessment in place.
Nevertheless, concerns still persist in a number of respects, including the practicalities of actually getting to court. The reality is that many defendants and advocates will have no choice but to travel on public transport, which the government is still warning people to avoid.
In addition, facilities at court have been greatly reduced. The robing room and all the conference rooms are now locked. Conferences must take place in the canteen area and although partitions have been erected in between tables, it hardly seems very private. Even the toilets are monitored by a marshal, with only one person allowed into the toilet area at any one time. Advocates have also flagged that, if their case is delayed or stood down, there is nowhere in the building to wait.
Some advocates and members of the BAME community have questioned not only the safety of what is being undertaken at Leeds, but also whether it is really necessary at all, especially when we are still in the grip of the Coronavirus crisis. It has been argued that if the defendant has already indicated a not guilty plea at the magistrates’ court, why drag them to court again a few weeks later, when the case could be case-managed remotely? Some barristers have complained that they are being denied the option to appear remotely at Leeds, even though that is still supposed to be the default position.
However, Judge Kearl QC is of the firm view that face-to-face hearings are the best way to manage and resolve cases, and the figures published after the first seven days seem to bear this out. Of the 74 cases heard, 55% pleaded guilty and 60% of those were sentenced there and then; therefore only 19 of the 74 cases required a trial date. In addition, concerns that defendants would simply not attend have also proved to be unfounded, as only seven bench warrants were issued. Therefore, it looks like the Leeds model may be replicated in many more courts very soon.