Lawyers have warned that coronavirus measures operating in court buildings will not stop the new variant of the virus from spreading.
The Glasgow Bar Association said that insufficient adaptations had been made to interview facilities at court and in the dock and that there are not enough places where lawyers can discuss matters with their clients “privately and safely in the current pandemic”.
The organisation voiced concerns after Scotland’s most senior judge Lord Carloway urged people entering court buildings to follow coronavirus rules to ensure that the administration of justice can continue safely.
He also warned that flouting the rules may be considered contempt of court, which lawyers from the Glasgow Bar Association said they “strongly object to”.
In a letter to Lord Carloway, the Glasgow Bar Association said: “Court users have adapted impressively to facilitating court hearings since lockdown, but the impact of the virus is most keenly felt on the persons who are accused or their witnesses, who are invariably from a lower socio-economic group, have associated health issues and are apparently at higher risk of contracting and spreading this virus.
“Sufficient adaptations have not been made to interview facilities at court nor in the dock.”
They added: “The reality is the Court estate has insufficient accommodation to allow Court practitioners to obtain their client’s instructions in a manner which allows privileged information to be discussed privately and safely in the current pandemic.
“You have to date been relying upon the goodwill of practitioners to persevere, but that goodwill is being rapidly exhausted.
“To compound your message with the ultimate sanction of contempt is a matter which we strongly object to.”
They also said that some cases could be dealt with administratively or remotely “if the setup was improved” and said they would be happy to hold further discussions with Lord Carloway to improve matters.
The association warned: “If the goal is to stop the spread of this latest mutation, it is with regret and concern that we write to advise that the current measures in operation will fail to achieve that.”
The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) has said that courts and tribunals will continue to operate business as currently scheduled, as it is an essential service.
People coming to court must wear face coverings when moving around the building and follow social distancing measures.
Starting times for court business are varied to reduce the number of people in buildings at any one time and many custody cases are being heard virtually.
Remote jury centres have been created to provide physical distancing both in the court room for participants and for the jurors in their specialised centres.
An SCTS spokesman said: “Court buildings and court rooms strictly adhere to Public Health Scotland guidance to minimise the potential transmission of the virus and continue to operate safely under the current restrictions.
“The Lord President has called on all court and tribunal users to abide by the protective measures already in place against Covid transmission in Scotland’s courts and tribunal buildings.
“He made it clear this is about reinforcing the rules for all at this difficult time with the purpose of ensuring that everyone who enters a court building is as safe as they can be. The same message has been shared with SCTS staff, judiciary and COPFS.
“The Lord President also reminded everyone that client consultations should take place prior to attending court wherever possible at this time.
“There will be occasions where it is not possible to consult or take instructions in advance. Where client instruction is required during a court hearing an adjournment should be sought. Consultations and instructions are taking place in person, by telephone or by digital means.
“We understand the additional anxiety and concerns being expressed, but the position remains as before that the measures in place are appropriate if the rules are followed by everyone.”
Amanda Millar, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “A number of solicitors have raised concerns with us about their ability to play a full and effective part in the court process when representing their clients as a result of the new measures that have been introduced this week.
“These concerns include a lack of suitable provision within some courts for consultation with clients, sanitisation supplies and inadequate sanitisation of court rooms between use, as well as clarity on the process for members to raise specific Covid-19 safety concerns.
“While it has been suggested that consultations should take place outwith the court building to maintain social distancing, there are unavoidable situations where consultations will require to take place shortly before or during a hearing, and there currently seems to be no suitable provision for this.
“We do not expect anyone to put their health at risk.
“We are in contact with the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service to alert them to the issues that have been raised with us and want to continue to take a collaborative approach to ensuring that all necessary health and safety measures can be put in place consistently across the court estate to protect those who are attending or work in our courts.”