Organising to keep members safe in the Courts and CPS

The PCS – Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) Group has joined the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) Group – for HM Courts and Tribunal Service in calling for the temporary closure of courts during lockdown.

If courts aren’t to close, the CPS Group has called for the withdrawal of all prosecutors, paralegals, court managers and administrators from physical deployment – deferring to virtual hearings as default. The respective Departmental management’s failure to meet these demands has led to the Union in both Groups moving to official industrial disputes.

The Lord Chief Justice’s recent announcement that all hearings should be held virtually over the Cloud Video Platform or CVP by default is with the exception of contested trials, where physical attendance of all parties and agencies is still expected. We have said that while we accept it’s more difficult to hold a trial virtually, it is possible and was in fact trialled in 2019 with some degree of success. We accept that the virtual attendance of witnesses may be problematic in terms of security, but PCS believes we can negotiate an agreed solution to this issue.

Despite the announcement by the head of the Judiciary, criminal justice agencies and organisations are still expected to make unnecessary applications to attend court hearing virtually, with the Judge making the sole decision. We are still hearing examples from members of Judges perversely deciding that prosecutors and paralegals must attend in person with no justifiable reason – operationally or in the interests of justice! We have laid out our demands for a ‘reverse burden’ on virtual hearings, namely that ALL hearing should be virtual by default and that it should be the responsibility of the Judiciary or Court Service management to justify why physical attendance is needed.

Despite the increase in Covid-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths in the communities the CPS and the courts serve, the court service management has been increasing the listing of cases to deal with the backlog to the extent that the court rooms and public areas are overcrowded; overcrowded in normal (pre-Coronavirus) terms, let alone for necessary Covid distancing safety. This leads to am unnecessary threat to CPS members’, other agencies and public court users’ safety in the court building areas, court and CPS rooms.

On the 8th January, together with the Industrial Officer for CPS and MoJ Groups and our National Officer, I attended a meeting called by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) – who represent the self-employed barristers who prosecute criminal cases on behalf of the CPS , along with other Justice Unions – the Prison Officer Association (POA), The Union for Probation Officers (NAPO) and other professional associations including the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and the Association of Higher Court Advocates. Unfortunately, we fell just short of an agreement to collectively call for court closures – the CBA themselves being one of the only 2 dissenting voices out of 9 organisations. That was probably due to their fear they would lose revenue if courts close for physical hearings. 

What we did agree to was a press release issued on 20th January and a joint statement issued to the Courts and Tribunal Service Chief Executive Officer, calling for an immediate, urgent review of health and safety in the courts. This is the first time in history our organisations have worked together in the interests of our respective members.

The disappointing, unacceptable, but unsurprising response from the HMCTS CEO did not accede to our demands of a joint review, but instead attempted to suggest that courts are safe by setting out the measures they have put in place, which are instantly compromised by distancing breaches, substandard cleaning and satitisation and the emerging issue of inappropriate ventilation and air conditioning systems.

In the CPS Group we have agreed a court and office Covid-19 risk assessment process, including a safety check which should be conducted daily, plus a court deployment protocol designed to keep the more vulnerable members away from both workplaces. we have given a consistent message and advice to our members all the way through from the first lockdown last March that ultimately if – despite these agreed measures in CPS and mitigations by HMCTS – they feel unsafe in the workplace, they are to inform their line manager and remove themselves stating Health and Safety reasons. We continue to offer support and advice to members about using Section 44 via our PCS central response team.

Given the Court Service and CPS management’s refusal to meet our reasonable demands, we felt we were left with no alternative but to move to an official Trade dispute. PCS is fighting hard to keep all of our members safe and PCS Left Unity is committed to campaigning to keep workplaces safe.

Steve Thorley

NEC member and CPS Group President

Steve is a candidate in the 2021 NEC elections for the Democracy Alliance. Click here for full election list

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