SCTS: Covid-19 arrangements in court and tribunal buildings
Eric McQueen, chief executive of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS), has written to bar associations in response to a letter raising concerns about the implementation of Covid-19 protections in court and tribunal buildings. We reproduce his letter in full below.
Thank you for your letter dated 22 January, submitted on behalf of a number of Bar Associations and Faculties.
Before addressing the points you raise I offer my continuing thanks to both you and your colleagues for the role that you are playing in supporting the justice system at this unique and challenging time. We have a shared interest in ensuring that the work we do is carried out in the safest way possible.
You mention that a number of practitioners have contracted COVID over the period of the pandemic and I wish them well in their recovery. Should you have evidence that, amongst practitioners, the prevalence of positive cases exceeds the general level of community transmission I would be grateful if you could share that with us as something we would wish to collectively consider.
Since the outset of the pandemic SCTS has sought to achieve three key priorities – to:
- Support the public health response – protecting the life and safety of all staff, court and tribunal users;
- Maintain all essential business so far as possible – ensuring cases are not lost;
- Minimise accumulation of case backlogs so far as possible - to facilitate the most effective recovery.
We have kept our overall response under continual review – responding to changes in circumstances, guidance, and risk whilst seeking the views and advice of public health colleagues, our own specialist estates and health & safety teams and the views of those with whom we work. At the strategic level our incident management team continues to meet several times per week to oversee the response and ensure these priorities are properly balanced. This has led to changes in approach where appropriate, such as the reduction in summary trials announced on 11 January.
Turning to the points raised in your letter you firstly make a number of queries in relation to risk assessments. The overarching risk assessment framework has been available on the SCTS website since courts re-opened in June of last year. We conducted thorough risk assessments of all premises before they were re-opened, which have been updated periodically throughout the pandemic. In order to meet your request to make available copies of the most recent risk assessment for each court building we are making arrangements for these to be published on the SCTS website in the course of this week. They are available here. This will allow you and your members to access and review all the assessments.
Throughout the pandemic we have strictly followed very clear public health guidance in relation to the measures required to minimise transmission and ensure that courts can continue to operate safely. We have been following Health Protection Scotland’s “COVID-19 - guidance for non-healthcare settings” and other associated guidance. This is crucial for us, the measures we have taken are the ones recommended by the experts to provide a working environment that is as safe as possible.
You assert that not all courts require visitors to register with the Safe2Go application. Our guidance on this point is clear – and features as part of our general “coming to court” guidance that is made available to both practitioners and the public. Safe2Go is in place across every site on our estate. We have no legal power to compel those entering our buildings to use the application – however we ask everyone to do so, have installed clear signage encouraging this and, in larger facilities, have employed additional staff whose role is both to encourage completion and to assist those who may have difficulty in so doing – with the staff member able to record details of a visitor on their behalf using a tablet with which they have been provided.
As court buildings are currently closed to the public the majority of users are SCTS staff and practitioners, groups whom have a clear self-interest in ensuring that the environment is as safe as it can be. If there is any more you can do to encourage your members to promote uptake of the Safe2Go application I would be grateful for your support.
You observe that many courts have seen little or no change to the frequency of their cleaning services. As an organisation we took an early decision to enhance cleaning standards – recognising the importance of these to keeping all those in our premises safe. Since the re-opening of premises last June our regular cleaning standard has been enhanced to ensure it complies with both the British Institute of Cleaning Science standard and the Health Protection Scotland (HPS) requirements for combatting risk of transmission of COVID19, set out in the HPS guidance referred to above. All cleaning agents used on SCTS premises at this time contain both active detergent and disinfectant properties, in order to ensure that our daily cleaning regime meets the levels required for “environmental decontamination” set out in the HPS guidance. By cleaning to this standard we ensure that our facilities are kept safe on a daily basis.
An enhanced daily cleaning regime is in place across estate. Sanitiser and wipes have been made widely available so that individuals can maintain personal hygiene or wipe down any surface they need to touch. It will not always be possible for every surface to be cleaned between each use, which is the case for a range of touch point areas in all public buildings and transport still open at this time. Where possible additional cleaning takes place during the day (e.g. at lunch time). For this reason, and in line with Public Health Guidance, we encourage the following hand hygiene regime whilst on the premises:
- you should wash or sanitise your hands before entering the court room.
- you should try to avoid touching hard surfaces where it is not necessary to do so.
- you should sanitise your hands immediately after leaving the court room.
As I am sure you will be aware, while there is an increased risk of transmission from the new variant of COVID, the public health advice in relation to physical distancing, face coverings and cleaning standards has not changed. The measures already in place are the right measures for the new variant, but it is now more important than ever that they are robustly followed at all times. Since the initial lockdown was lifted, these measures have created a safe environment that has successfully managed over 2,500 criminal trials and many more procedural hearings.
You will also appreciate that observing the Government’s FACTS guidance is the recommended approach to providing the safest possible environment. For this reason we have reconfigured all our buildings to ensure that 2 metre physical distancing can be maintained at all times in courts, meeting rooms, offices and communal areas. Prior to buildings re-opening space planning was conducted to ensure that any rooms where this would not be possible were taken out of use and to confirm the maximum safe occupancy for facilities which remain in use.
We decided not to take the approach adopted elsewhere in the UK, where sub-2 metre distancing would be permitted, but with Perspex screens installed as a mitigation. We took this decision because the public health advice was clear – maintaining physical distancing of at least 2 metres is a preferable approach. Should you, or any of your members, find yourself in a position where you cannot maintain 2 metres distancing on our premises at this time I would advise you not to put yourself at risk and to raise the issue so that it can be addressed. We have a shared interest in keeping the environment safe. We are currently in the process of looking again at interview facilities and, in smaller rooms where maintaining 2 metre distancing may be more challenging due to their size, we will consider whether the installation of Perspex screens would provide additional assurance.
You enquire as to the measures we have taken to ensure that ventilation is adequate across the court estate. In conducting our risk assessments we have ensured that the arrangements in our buildings meet the standards set out in the Scottish Government’s Coronavirus ventilation guidance for non-domestic premises and guidance issued by the Chartered Institute of Building Service Engineers. All SCTS premises that have mechanical ventilation systems have had their re-circulation and/or thermal wheel systems disabled so that they are currently operating on full fresh air only. The installed systems were sized on seating and occupancy capacity that exceeds the numbers on the premises at present and can therefore supply sufficient fresh air. In areas where natural ventilation is relied upon the guidance set out by the Scottish Government is being followed to ensure an appropriate circulation of fresh air.
You also ask what Biological Agent Group Classification the SCTS has given to SARS COVID-19. Our understanding is that the Biological Agent Group Classification given to a virus is intended to guide those charged with the handling of the virus itself under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regime – such as those working on the virus in a laboratory. In that regard we understand that the European Commission has classified SARS-nCOV-2 as a risk group 3 biological agent. As SCTS does not handle samples of the virus we observe the relevant guidance issued by Health Protection Scotland for safe operation in non-healthcare settings, referred to above.
I hope the information provided here – and in the risk assessments – is of assistance. It is important for everyone to have effective channels in place to address issues as they arise and to assess common themes. With that in mind could I remind you and your members of the most effective ways in which to raise particular types of issues so that we can resolve them together:
- If supplies of consumable products such as wipes and sanitiser are running low, or not available at appropriate places in our buildings, please let a member of court staff know immediately.
- If you see something that does not look right or is not in line with the guidance we have in place, please raise it with the Sheriff Clerk’s staff straight away.
- If you still have concerns having raised an issue, we would encourage you, via your local faculty or bar association if preferred, to escalate the matter to the Sheriff Clerk in the first instance or Sheriff Principal if necessary.
- Should you have a concern that the measures SCTS has in place do not meet with the relevant Health Protection Scotland guidance you should raise this matter through the Law Society of Scotland – as matters of this nature may be of national importance and this will allow consultation to take place between the Law Society and the SCTS.
Without shutting down the justice system we cannot eliminate all risk, in the same way that risk cannot be eliminated from our homes, essential retail or public transport at this time. But we can reduce and manage the risk by putting the right measures in place and by making sure we all follow those measures. We have a shared interest in ensuring that the administration of justice continues as efficiently and effectively as it can – in as safe an environment as possible.
I have sent a copy of this letter to the Law Society of Scotland.