HM Courts and Tribunals Service – PCS consultative ballot over Covid safety

Ministry of Justice staff are not notorious for wanting to go on strike at the drop of a hat. But current conditions in HM Courts and Tribunals Service are so bad that there is a demand from PCS union members for an adequate response to the dangers they face. Following the impressive engagement of teachers and school-workers that the National Education Union recently achieved (leading to a significant government climb-down and U-turn), it will be interesting to see if section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 also gets invoked on a mass scale in HMCTS.

Some areas of the MoJ have been well set up and workers have been using laptop computers and mobile phones to work flexibly (including from home) for years. Courts and Tribunals have been less fortunate: 70% of HMCTS staff have been required to continue going into workplaces since March 2020.

Workplaces have allegedly had risk assessments and courts have been signed off as ‘Covid secure’, but in practice social distancing isn’t always observed. An estates manager in the Midlands recently said that ‘Covid secure’ doesn’t necessarily mean courts are ‘Covid safe’. Presumably it is the fault of ordinary people using the buildings (and working in them), rather than those who insist they remain open (and who threaten disciplinary action against dissenting staff)? Presumably ‘following the science’ currently looks different in courts to other equivalent places in our beleaguered land?

Legal Advisors have complained judges still literally breath down their necks. Some court clerks have pointed out that there are more adequate protections (and better pay) for supermarket workers such as at Aldi, with their Perspex screens and use of headsets with microphones and ear-pieces. Why not in courts and tribunals? Where is their much-trumpeted investment in technological solutions now?

With unfortunate parallels to our precious National Health Service, the Ministry of Justice was already chronically under-resourced (and over £1bn in debt) well before the global coronavirus pandemic hit us. Staff goodwill had already been stretched way past reasonable limits. Half the magistrates’ courts in England and Wales were shut between 2010 and 2018. It was stated that selling off the empty buildings would raise funds for the Digital Reform agenda. But with some courts literally being sold for pence, and the average court sale bringing in just £250,000 (coincidentally the average price of a semi-detached house), the fire-sale didn’t generate anywhere near what the government initially forecast. Property developers, meanwhile, must have been rubbing their hands together.

With so many courts closed or sold off, and with staffing so under-resourced and over-stretched, unsurprisingly a huge backlog of criminal cases (amounting to literally years’ worth of work) had already built up by the time the Covid-19 virus arrived in the UK. This fact was scarcely mentioned in the mainstream media in the recent publicity about the courts’ backlog. Frankly, cutting crown court juries from 12 people to 7 won’t address the root causes of the problems.

HMCTS have insisted on a ‘business as usual’ approach, no doubt desperate to try and avoid the further consequences of their short-sighted and ill-advised policies. PCS members on MoJ understand the need for justice to be served. Few would complain where someone who is deemed a threat to public safety needs to have an urgent trial. But the fact that in-person hearings are still being conducted for matters such as speeding tickets, littering, and riding on a tram without a ticket, at a time when others are being fined for bringing members of the public together in numbers to enclosed indoor spaces is a startling anomaly of the kind we are unfortunately all too familiar with from the past 10 months. Where is the insistence from HMCTS now to press ahead with the Digital Reform agenda and the piloting of ‘virtual hearings’?

The net result of all this has been over 1500 Covid-19 incidents in courts from June to December 2020, and over 500 in the week commencing 4th January 2021. Sickness levels in HMCTS are running at around 20%. The service was already way over-stretched, now it is dangerously close to breaking point.

The Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society are also raising serious concerns and questioning the wisdom of keeping the ‘in-person’ aspects of the service running. There aren’t any signs that HMCTS will back down, or that they are prepared to properly protect staff, members of the public, solicitors and judiciary alike, so both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Courts and Tribunals Service are now running consultative ballots with PCS members. Please lend them your solidarity if they are left with no option but to take action.

by an MoJ worker

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