Journalists are to be included in pilot schemes offering courts staff, judiciary and jurors rapid coronavirus testing when attending court as part of a UK-wide drive to stop the spread of the virus.
Both the rapid testing pilot sites at Manchester and Southwark will offer lateral flow tests to professional courts users who attend the site for a scheduled hearing.
The Courts and Tribunal Service HMCTS this week confirmed the inclusion of journalists in the scheme when announcing the opening of a second rapid testing pilot site at Southwark Crown Court.
The first pilot started in January 2021 at Manchester Civil Justice Centre, where more than 160 tests were carried out in the first week – and were all negative.
While 20,000 hearings are heard remotely each month, a number of courts still operate in-person trials under social distancing. The movement of court reporters between courtrooms when covering trials raised arguments as to why the media ought to be included in the scheme to protect court users and maintain open justice.
Tristan Kirk, courts correspondent at the Evening Standard told the SoE: “Despite the initial confusion, it is very positive news that members of the media will be part of the Covid testing programme as it is piloted and hopefully rolled out nationally.
“If successful, the scheme will help to protect professional court users attending the buildings as part of their working day, and there is no reason to exclude journalists from that category.
“On occasions, the status of reporters as working professionals is forgotten at the courts, so it’s worth commenting on how reporters – like other court users – have attended hearings at their own personal risk throughout the pandemic, when attending via videolink would not suffice. They have continued to deliver open justice, and a Covid testing scheme in place at courts can only help to promote that principle further.”
Kevin Sadler, Acting CEO of HMCTS, said: “Justice is essential to all those who need it – from vulnerable victims to families in crisis, witnesses and defendants as well as wider society – and courts and tribunals have been operating throughout the pandemic.
“This second rapid test pilot is in addition to a suite of safety measures already in place to keep court visitors safe.”
For those attending physical hearings at the pilot centres, court users will be given the opportunity to book a test slot via their smartphone and will be informed of the results by text within 30 minutes of the test being taken.
HMCTS has said it will use the pilot’s findings to decide how rapid testing could be rolled out nationally to other courts and tribunals across the country.
The news comes as HMCTS has announced that London’s Barbican centre and Manchester Hilton hotel are among 14 new ‘Nightingale courts’ being opened to speed up delays in the justice system. Currently 56,000 cases are waiting to be heard in England and Wales – with new cases being timetabled for trials in 2023.
Find out more about the pilot scheme here.