Govt advice on two-hour limit on meetings caused 'huge confusion' in courts, documents show

The Courts Service were worried that “absolutely nothing could function” after concerns over a two-hour time limit for people to be allowed stay in the same place were raised.
Govt advice on two-hour limit on meetings caused 'huge confusion' in courts, documents show
Chief Justice Frank Clarke was among those raising concerns about the two-hour limit on meetings. Picture: Collins Courts
Chief Justice Frank Clarke was among those raising concerns about the two-hour limit on meetings. Picture: Collins Courts

The Courts Service were worried that “absolutely nothing could function” after concerns over a two-hour time limit for people to be allowed stay in the same place were raised.

“Huge confusion” was caused after the Oireachtas said that TDs should spend no longer than 120 minutes in the Dáil chamber due to Covid-19 risks.

The Courts Service was worried courts would grind to a halt and was “inundated” with calls and emails according to internal records, with one official hoping “this entire [issue] … has been loosely interpreted”.

Chief Justice Frank Clarke wrote that “urgent advice” would be needed as he issued an instruction that court sittings could last no longer than two hours.

In an email, Judge Clarke wrote: “How are we to deal with identifying all in the room for tracing purposes when it is a public hearing.

“If there is a gap between two-hour sessions, what is the position and how long would that gap have to be? I am sure there are other issues.”

The advice on sittings also caused consternation among certain staff with some saying the same rules would have to apply equally to all court workers.

A senior official in one office wrote: “What’s good for the judges is good for the staff! I have five people working in less space than a courtroom. Surely this advice if it stands has to apply to staff.

It’s unworkable. What about factories and warehouses and all other forms of multiple person workplaces. It’s this sort of stuff that drives staff mad. How do I explain the difference between staff and the judiciary?

The Courts Service also contacted the Taoiseach’s office and authorities at Leinster House directly asking if they could provide further information on what the advice actually was.

Chief Executive Angela Denning wrote: “This could have a significant impact on court sittings and is a very live issue for us as courts sit daily.” Later that evening on May 20, the Courts Service breathed a sigh of relief after the Department of Health reassured them it was primarily a contact tracing issue.

They said advice had to be considered after balancing risks and benefits which Ms Denning said was “a necessary part of opening the doors at all”.

In an email circulated to the Courts Service, Prof Martin Cormican explained that the two-hour rule was unlikely to make any “material difference” to the chances of Covid-19 spread.

He wrote: “I do not recommend this measure on infection prevention and control grounds.

“Limiting the period in a meeting, shared space to less than 2 hours in a 24 hour period can serve as an administrative/technical solution to avoid the inconvenience of being retrospectively designated as a Covid-19 contact.”

Prof Cormican said judges and registrars who work in close contact all day would most likely have to self-isolate if one or other became symptomatic.

Following the new advice, the Courts Service also said a new system would have to be created for contact tracing purposes.

Officials asked that data protection laws be considered and suggested that a list of attendees could be retained for 28 days and then destroyed.

One email said: “The key message is that there has been absolutely no change to the public health guidance, and if we need to provide notification of possible contact with a Covid-19 positive person we will be able to do that.” A spokesman for the Courts Service said the reopening of business had been “very difficult to facilitate and has demanded huge investment of resources to support”.

He said: “A planning recovery programme for the new normal way of working, which pulls together the different strands of activity is underway, to meet the challenges.” The spokesman said there had been “confusion and concern” over the two-hour time limit issue and that the primary focus had been on the “welfare of staff and court users – as increasingly the judiciary were already sitting behind glass or Perspex screenings”.

He said the Covid-19 situation can at times lead to “tensions” but that ideas were being listened to and acted on that had resulted “in a wide and expanding set of innovative changes to accommodate access to justice”.

Any concerns surrounding GDPR and contact tracing would also be managed and any information would only be retained for the minimum period required, he added.

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