The Law Society of England and Wales has warned that legal professionals should not break quarantine to attend hearings and tribunals despite government guidance that lawyers will be allowed to break the mandatory self-isolation period to attend court or tribunal hearings.
The government clarified earlier this week that anyone required to attend an in-person hearing returning from non-exempt countries - including solicitors and barristers - will be allowed to break the mandatory self-isolation period to attend court or tribunal hearings.
According to the government, after attending a hearing, those who have come from non-exempt countries should continue their self-isolation.
Law Society president Simon Davis said that 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".
He added: "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.
"This measure poses an even greater risk to BAME practitioners and court users, and those with underlying health conditions or who have vulnerable family members – who all already fall in higher risk categories for COVID-19.
"If this results in an outbreak, courts which urgently need to be operating will have to shut down – damaging the government's court recovery plan and adding to the ever-increasing case backlogs in our justice system."
An outbreak of COVID-19 at Manchester Crown Court earlier this month saw eight staff members and contractor test positive for the virus. As a result, the court building has been closed since August 10, and urgent work moved elsewhere.
Davis said that communication in an outbreak at a court must be "much clearer". He also called for risk assessments to be readily available for all court users and reporting of outbreaks to be transparent.
He said: "It is vital solicitors and other court users know what is happening in courts and tribunals buildings at all times – especially if a staff member has displayed any COVID-19 symptoms.
"There must be tailored and effective communications systems in place so that court users are immediately aware of any potential outbreaks or safety concerns and are able to make informed decisions.
"Risk assessments – including reference to any confirmed recent COVID-19 cases – should be readily available for all court users as soon as they are requested and the reporting systems for such incidents should be transparent and communicated with 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."
Responding to the government's announcement, a spokesperson for the Bar Council said: "We had been speaking to the government since May about 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.
"On June 8th 2020 the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) Regulations 2020 came into force. By regulation 4(9)(c) 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'.
“Because it was unclear who was specifically included in this exemption, we have continued to press the Department for Transport to confirm, as it has now done, whether barristers are included. They have now confirmed that the permission to leave a place of self-isolation to participate in legal proceedings applies to anyone involved in the proceedings, including defendants, witnesses and instructing solicitors."