It just didn’t make sense to me. The government had issued guidance to social distance, reduce the use of public transport and remote work, but it seemed that possession cases were still being heard in court. There had been an announcement that hearings in family cases would be suspended or be conducted remotely, jury trials of more than three days would stop – but nothing about possession.
This was worrying. Possession cases are listed in blocks of time, usually hourly: 10am, 11am 12 etc throughout the day. The people in the cases turn up at the same time and wait until they get called in to court. Sometimes, as many as 25/30 people are milling about in the waiting area – a mix of clients and their families, landlords, solicitors and court staff – all in a very confined space. The interview rooms are usually small and windowless.
On Tuesday the law centre moved to remote working, but we still had to attend court. I was deeply concerned about the risks posed to my staff (and everyone else) with the block possession lists in the county courts still running. We have contracts with the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) to deliver advice to people who face losing their home in Wandsworth and Brentford Courts. Not to turn up would be a breach of contract. I wrote to the LAA for advice on health and safety of attending court. We had been to court the previous day and there was no soap and only cold water (the boiler broke some time ago and has never been fixed).
On Wednesday the government announced a complete ban on evictions. This was welcome news. In the light of this I wrote to the lead judges at both courts. I wanted to know if the possession cases would be continuing. I asked other law centre colleagues what was happening in their courts. I attached a draft of the letter I had written to my judges.
Thursday. Things were changing fast. I had positive responses from both my judges – they were taking this up and taking it seriously – they would let me know. The Lord Chief Justice issued further guidance that block possession cases were ‘inappropriate’. My law centre colleagues were writing to their respective courts, some had written to the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland. As the day progressed different law centres were having mixed responses from their courts. I heard a judge in Exeter, DJ Gore, had adjourned all possession cases until the after the 19th June 2020. I still had not heard whether the possession list at Brentford was going ahead the following day.
In our series on Court cleanliness, may I give you a wipe from a conference room at Preston Crown Court yesterday, and the Sessions House. pic.twitter.com/kCnWPsViS7
— Idle Courts (@CourtsIdle) March 21, 2020
My colleague, Renata Burns, was due to attend court the next morning as duty solicitor. She has a small child. She was worried about risks to her family if she attended but also felt duty bound to go. She wrote to the court late on Thursday requesting all cases be adjourned without a hearing – in line with the order made in Exeter Combined Court.
She spoke with the lead judge upon arriving at court, who agreed with the approach, but somehow, this didn’t get filtered through to the other judges, and she had to make specific applications on the cases she represented. One of the clients was pregnant, another had Lupus, a condition that affects the immune system. Although vulnerable, both felt they had no choice but to turn up to save their home.
After court, Renata messaged me to say, ‘The court was its usual state of uncleanliness. At least three people were in the waiting area wearing face masks. When questioned by the usher they admitted to having some of the symptoms of the virus. They got asked to leave the court building by the usher but had been allowed in by security. There was no deep clean in the waiting area after they left.’
To put this in context – in the present crisis – the washing facilities at court are not good generally. Often there is no hot water, no soap, no paper towels. If you were to trawl through twitter you will see these poor conditions documented and photographed across the country.
Sarah Steinhardt, a barrister at Doughty Street, was in Central London County Court on Thursday 19 March 2020. She tweeted: ‘I am in an all day case at London CC. There is no hot water, no hand towels and no working hand dryer.’
The courts have been so underfunded, for so long, that this is now something we just work around as advocates. It wasn’t until I mentioned this to a friend, who is a doctor, that I began to realise that the poor hygiene at courts poses a serious public health issue. My friend (the doctor) was having a meeting with public health that morning and asked me to detail both the block listing of possession cases and the facilities at court. She was so outraged she was going to take this up.
Seeing it through her eyes was interesting. She is a doctor, she takes an oath, lawyers don’t quite do that – but we do walk many miles in our client’s shoes. We feel duty bound to show up and represent our clients regardless of risk. As I write, Rhona Friedman, from Commons, is duty solicitor at Croydon Magistrates Court. It’s Saturday. I ask her how things are there. She replies: ‘They are carrying on in their usual Slack Alice way.’ Which makes me laugh, in the midst of this madness, as my nan’s name was Alice and she was often called that.
Rhona phoned me after court. She described the conditions in the court building: ‘No hand sanitiser in the cells except a tiny amount for staff. Gaolers insisting, we all sign in using the same communal bic pen on a string, which they are not cleaning after use. No health assessment for people coming out or going into custody.’ She has sent pictures of the condition of the women’s toilet – but I will spare you those. We, as key workers, are putting ourselves and our families at risk. For this to be recognised, for us to have basic washing facilities, would make a huge difference.
The issue of cleanliness has been raised with Susan Acland Hood, the head of the court service (HMCTS). Her response regarding the lack of soap and cold water at Brentford was: ‘I have agreed extra cleaning with our contracted cleaners; instituted daily checks on soap/paper towels by our own staff; and am addressing the hot water issue in Brentford (though in fact the health advice is that cold water and soap kill the virus).’
Of greatest concern to me today, is that a dear friend and colleague, Simon Mullings, is now having to self-isolate as he was exposed to a client with symptoms yesterday in his London court on possession day. The client was mortified to be there, feeling so ill, but didn’t think he had a choice. He needed to save his home. The court staff isolated the man and Simon got the adjournment on his case – from the back of the court. He has since documented his experience on twitter – 37 linked tweets. But all of this ‘business as usual’ comes at a cost. Simon’s partner is a teacher – a much needed key worker – she now can’t go to work.
There was a direction late on Friday, that there will be no more block lists in the London courts for a period, pending further guidance. That is great news. We have about six weeks’ worth of cases in the court diaries. But it is unclear what will happen after that. Some courts have indicated the cases will be listed by telephone; others have adjourned all cases for three months.
It would be really helpful to have a co-ordinated approach across the country on all face to face hearings, including the criminal courts. I have seen, quite heart-breaking, posts on social media from jurors who are conflicted between the need to perform their public duty and the need to protect their families. They don’t want to sit in court or the jury room for up to three days. And it goes against government guidance to do so.
As for housing cases, the most proportionate, to me, a front-line advocate for many years, would be to adjourn all possession cases for three months. We really don’t want, or need, people evicted, looking for alternative accommodation, or being directed by the court to gather evidence in their cases. It’s a possible breach of human rights legislation and it puts everyone at risk.