The Law Society has spoken out against a government clarification sought by Bar Council that means anyone self-isolating after returning from abroad can break quarantine to attend court.
The society said this increased the risk of Covid-19 transmission and posed a danger to court users.
Earlier this week, a Bar Council explained that it had been in talks with the government since May over this issue, “because many barristers were required to attend court in person overseas and needed an exemption in order to attend hearings in England upon their return”.
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) Regulations 2020 came into force on 8 June and provide that a person may not break their self-isolation except “to fulfil a legal obligation, including attending court or satisfying bail conditions, or to participate in legal proceedings”.
The Department for Transport has now confirmed to the Bar Council that the permission to leave self-isolation to participate in legal proceedings “applies to anyone involved in the proceedings, including defendants, witnesses and instructing solicitors”.
The Law Society issued a statement yesterday saying lawyers should not be allowed to break quarantine.
President Simon Davis said: “Throughout the pandemic, we have been absolutely clear that the health and safety of all courts users is of the utmost importance, while recognising the need to keep the wheels of justice turning…
“Allowing lawyers to break quarantine to attend hearings will increase the risk of Covid-19 transmission and pose a significant danger to court users – particularly from those who may attend court unaware that they are an asymptomatic carrier.
“I would urge anybody in this situation to consider fully the potential health implications for other court users if they were to break their self-isolation period to attend in person.”
Mr Davis said that if this resulted in an outbreak, courts would have to shut down – as has happened recently at Manchester Crown Court – “damaging the government’s court recovery plan and adding to the ever-increasing case backlogs in our justice system”.
He also urged better communication around any future Covid-19 outbreaks than was the case in Manchester, with risk assessments – including reference to any confirmed recent Covid-19 cases –readily available for all court users.
“Allowing people to break quarantine to attend court and not having effective systems in place to communicate outbreaks in the court puts lives at risk,” he said.
Several barristers on social media expressed their objections as well. Richard Balchin of Trinity Chambers replied to the Bar Council: “This is reckless. A lawyer can break quarantine after a foreign holiday to infect other barristers, judges & court staff. Is this looking after the interests of the many or the few?
“Was there a consultation I missed? Quarantine exists to protect us all during the incubation stage. Please explain why you have lobbied for this ‘exemption’ and publish your Risk Assessment.”
His colleague at Trinity, Claire Brissenden, added: “This is crazy. I will be self isolating on my return from Malta and doing all hearings remotely. I do not want an exemption as I wouldn’t place my client, the court staff or judge at risk like that. Who thought this was a good idea?!”
Adam Willoughby of Broadway House Chambers added: “From those of us who are particularly vulnerable if we catch COVID-19, thanks very much. Thanks for making it more dangerous for me to do my job. How is this possibly sensible or fair? How is it fair on court staff?”
Charlotte John at Hardwicke said: “Struggling to understand the logic of this and why the Bar Council is presenting it as some kind of victory. Few things less responsible than swanning straight back into court after a jaunt to a high risk country. If you choose go go, quarantine like everyone else afterwards.”
Alison Grief QC of 4 Paper Buildings tweeted: “This is madness. It is either necessary to self isolate and thus not safe to go out, let alone to a public building where, unlike shops, face masks will not be worn in the Court room, or it isn’t.”