This earlier advice suggested that meetings involving the same people should not last for more than two hours in any one day, and led the top judges to put a two-hour limit on court sittings earlier this week.
In their letters, the Chief Justice and court presidents say they regret any inconvenience caused by the confusion over the health advice. They add, however, that they and the Courts Service could not take the risk that the courts might operate outside of current government guidance.
The letters contain information about additional safety measures for judges, courts staff and court users as courts return to what is being described as the ‘new normal’.
The names of those who are in court for more than two hours will be recorded, temporarily, for possible contact tracing purposes, while respecting GDPR rules.
The Law Society and Bar Council have been advised of the changes which might affect their members.
Law Society President Michele O’Boyle said she was glad to note that the question of limiting court sittings to two hours had been clarified and resolved.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the Courts Service to significantly increase the very low volume of cases currently being listed before the courts while complying fully with public health guidelines,” she said in a statement.
The judges’ letter sets out the current position and explains the advice given by Professor Martin Cormican of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
Professor Cormican has advised the Courts Service that public health advice remains unchanged, and there is no rule that people should spend less than two hours in the same room as others. Therefore, from an infection control perspective, there is no need to limit court sessions to two hours.
Professor Cormican said the consequence of sessions lasting longer than two hours would be that if someone tested positive, all persons in the courtroom with them for the full two hours would be considered a potential contact.
“We understand that some employers make a pragmatic decision to attempt to minimise the extent to which persons might qualify as close contacts in such circumstances in order to reduce the risk of a significant number of staff having to self-isolate at the same time,” the judges say.
The letter explains the context for new arrangements, saying courts are unlike many enclosed workplaces in that the public have access to the courtroom without ordinarily being identified and frequently spend a significant portion of a sitting day at a hearing.
They say that in normal circumstances a court would have no means of knowing who was in attendance and for what period.
From now, there will be a procedure for recording the identity and contact details of all those who attend court. The Courts Service is taking advice to ensure that any such details are treated in accordance with privacy rules, and any such details will be destroyed immediately upon the expiry of any relevant period.
“Those who are unwilling to give such details cannot be admitted to the courtroom,” the judges say. “However, this will not absolve any person who has a legal obligation to be present from fulfilling that obligation unless released by the court.”