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

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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.



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