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MESSAGE FROM THE ACTION COMMITTEE: KEEPING OUR COURT ENVIRONMENTS SAFE IN THE MIDST OF A PANDEMIC

A Statement from the Action Committee

Our Committee exists to support Canada’s courts as they work to protect the health and safety of all court users in the COVID-19 context while upholding the fundamental values of our justice system. These mutually sustaining commitments guide all of our efforts.

PURPOSE AND CONTEXT

Throughout the pandemic, Canadian courts have continued to provide essential justice services to the public. Although virtual hearings and remote services are an important part of this ongoing effort, some services must be offered in person. To achieve this goal, courts have continued to collaborate with public health authorities and occupational health and safety experts to ensure court facilities remain safe for personnel and other court users who need to attend in person.

As the pandemic continues to evolve rapidly, and as winter may increase challenges in reducing the risk of transmission of COVID-19, the Action Committee wishes to emphasize some important control measures and recommended practices from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) to promote the health and safety of court users and personnel in the context of ongoing court operations. This guidance is non-exhaustive and does not replace applicable health and safety laws and regulations. Adaptations may also be required based on the specific context of individual courts and tailored advice from local public health authorities or occupational health and safety experts.

KNOWN MODES OF TRANSMISSION OF COVID-19

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is transmitted through infected respiratory droplets and aerosols, that enter the body through direct contact with the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth, or by being inhaled. Transmission can occur through:

  • Physical contact, close contact settings or close-range conversations between individuals
  • Hand contact with contaminated objects – such as high touch or common surfaces – followed by unwashed hand contact with the eyes, nose or mouth
  • Poorly ventilated or crowded indoor spaces in which lingering aerosols (small droplets) may remain suspended in the air and be inhaled

Risks of transmission are greater in indoor, closed or crowded spaces, which can include court settings.

MITIGATING RISKS – AN INTEGRATED, MULTI-LAYERED APPROACH

As emphasized by PHAC and CCOHS, the most effective strategy to reduce the risk of introducing, transmitting and propagating the COVID-19 virus in court settings involves a multi- layered approach that integrates four different levels of control measures to create the safest court environment possible. These levels can be described as follows.

Level 1: Physical distancing

  • Enforce a physical distance of at least 2 metres (6 feet) between each person to minimize close contacts. Control the flow of access to, and circulation within, all areas of court facilities, including courtrooms and registries, to reduce congestion and contact points.

Level 2: Engineering controls

  • Adjust the physical environment of the courts to reduce inherent risks of exposure:
    • Install physical barriers such as Plexiglas dividers in select locations; while such barriers do not replace masks, they can provide an additional layer of protection.
    • Ensure that ventilation systems are working safely and effectively.

Level 3: Administrative controls

  • Adopt or review procedural and operational tools – such as standard operating procedures, protocols, policies and work practices – to effectively implement the various levels of control measures in the court setting.
  • Provide informational and training tools to enable court personnel and users to comply with applicable health and safety measures.
  • In developing administrative controls, consider the specific needs of different groups of court users and personnel, and provide for accommodation measures as needed to promote safe accessibility to court facilities and services.

Level 4: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Non-Medical Masks (NMMs)

  • To reduce the risk of transmission by close contact or aerosols, promote the use of NMMs for all court users and court personnel in all areas of court facilities, as recommended by public health authorities.
  • Implement safe alternative measures in situations where wearing masks is contraindicated by public health authorities or may create an impediment to court proceedings.
  • Where appropriate, promote also the use of PPE, such as gloves or face shields, for court personnel, as recommended by occupational health and safety experts. While face shields do not replace the protection of a mask, they can protect eyes against virus transmission by close contact or aerosols, and against contact with cleaning or disinfecting products.

IMPLEMENTATION OF CONTROL MEASURES – RECOMMENDED PRACTICES

Courts are encouraged to combine recommended practices from all four levels of control measures – as described in the annexed Checklist and as required by the applicable context – as part of an integrated strategy to mitigate risks. In the current context of the pandemic, physical distancing, NMMs and proper ventilation are now recognized as key components of an effective approach to risk mitigation, to be used in combination with other measures, as appropriate. A court audit tool can help to design and implement an effective, multi-layered approach to control measures within specific court facilities.

A practical example

If the court registry accepts in-person filing of documents, physical distancing between the registry officer and the court user (level 1) becomes temporarily impractical. Installing a Plexiglas barrier and ensuring proper ventilation at the registry counter (level 2), training the registry officer on applicable health and safety measures (level 3), and promoting the wearing of non medical masks (NMM) by both the registry officer and the court user (level 4) can help to reduce the overall risk of transmitting the virus in this context.

Alternatively, the court registry could implement a no-contact, document drop-off point to reduce close contacts and overall occupancy in the court facility (level 1); improve ventilation in work areas where court personnel process the documents received (level 2); implement or adapt work protocols to ensure documents are processed and filed in accordance with applicable court rules and occupational health and safety procedures (level 3); and promote the wearing of NMMs by court personnel (level 4).

RESOURCES AND REFERENCES

Action Committee on Court Operations in Response to COVID-19

- Orienting principles on safe and accessible courts

- Guidance on protecting court personnel and court users and general practices for cleaning and disinfecting

- Courtroom Symptom Appearance and Related Situations

Public Health Agency of Canada

- Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Homepage

- COVID-19: Modes of transmission

- COVID-19: Guidance on indoor ventilation during the pandemic

- Risk mitigation tool for workplaces/businesses operating during the COVID-19 pandemic

CHECKLIST – RECOMMENDED PRACTICES FOR IMPLEMENTING HEALTH AND SAFETY CONTROL MEASURES IN COURT ENVIRONMENTS

This checklist builds upon the Action Committee’s Orienting Principles on Safe and Accessible Courts, and includes hyperlinks to other publications that offer additional information on specific practices. To maximize effectiveness and minimize risks, combine recommended practices from all four levels of control measures to address various situations that might arise in the court environment. Use a court audit tool to help identify and implement appropriate control measures for specific court facilities.

Level 1: Physical distancing

  • Establish and track the maximum occupancy rate – based on public health requirements – for each court facility, courtroom and other spaces in use such as registries, workspaces, washrooms, elevators and waiting areas
  • Post maximum occupancy notices at the entrance of court facilities, courtrooms, elevators and other spaces used by court users or personnel
  • Rearrange the layout of courtroom and other fixtures as feasible, or block certain seats, desks, workstations and washroom stalls and sinks that should not be used
  • Adapt scheduling practices to reduce the number of persons attending court facilities at the same time - for example, stagger court starting times, provide designated time slots for appearances or hearings, schedule appointments for registry services
  • Create directional controls and post visual cues and signage to control traffic at entry and exit points and in hallways, stairways and elevators, and place floor markers at least two metres apart in gathering or waiting areas such as court facility entrances, screening stations and registries
  • Implement remote or flexible work arrangements for court personnel as operationally feasible
  • Implement remote and virtual services for court users, such as virtual hearings, phone or online assistance, e-filing, and automated barcodes for juror or witness summonses
  • Use alternate rooms with secure remote transmission or alternate facilities to provide overflow access to court proceedings for justice participants, the media and the general public

Level 2: Engineering controls

  • Ensure that ventilation systems in indoor spaces operate properly. For example:
    • Increase circulation of outdoor air by opening windows and doors for a few minutes at a time, when safe and feasible
    • Run the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) fan continuously at a low speed to increase air movement and filtration
    • To keep rooms cool, adjust building ventilation systems and air conditioning units rather than using powerful portable cooling fans that might increase the spread of COVID-19
    • Limit the use of demand-controlled ventilation to keep systems running at an optimal setting
    • Increase filtration efficiency to the highest level appropriate for the ventilation system
    • Clean or change air filters regularly as recommended by the manufacturer
    • Consult an HVAC professional to ensure that the current ventilation system is appropriate for the setting, type of activity, occupancy and length of time the space is occupied, and before making changes to the system
    • If possible, run systems for two hours at maximum outside airflow before and after the rooms and/or building are occupied
    • If possible, run bathroom exhaust fans continuously if they are vented to the outside
    • Explore the use of portable high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration units only if mechanical and natural ventilation is not possible and physical distancing can be achieved, and consult an experienced professional before using these devices
  • Install barriers or shielding, such as Plexiglas or dividers, in strategic locations, especially those that may involve close contacts or the removal of masks during court proceedings. For example:
    • Around personnel stations for monitoring courthouse entry or conducting health screening
    • At registry counters and information desks
    • Around the judge’s bench, the witness box, and the jury box
    • Around stations, desks or lecterns used by counsel, clerks and court reporters
    • Between seats in the jury box and in the public seating area (gallery) of the courtroom

Level 3: Administrative controls

Operational policies, procedures and training

  • Create an entry, exit and movement protocol to stagger entry to and exit from, and control circulation and congestion within, court facilities and courtrooms
  • Establish a protocol on how counsel are to approach witnesses, jurors, or the judge, and employ visual cues such as floor markers within the courtroom
  • Post signage and instructions throughout the court facility to promote physical distancing, respiratory etiquette and proper hygiene practices
  • In consultation with occupational health and safety experts, establish or adapt workplace policies and procedures on topics such as
    • Safe use of workspaces within the court facility when in-person presence is required
    • Remote and flexible/staggered work arrangements, as operationally feasible
    • Staying home when personnel is ill or caring for an ill person, or has tested positive for or been exposed to COVID-19
  • Provide basic training to all court personnel to enable them to comply with applicable health and safety measures and related workplace policies and procedures
  • Designate and train court personnel as needed to safely and effectively implement specific health and safety measures for court users, such as
    • Health screening and contact tracing
    • Maximum occupancy and movement controls
    • Health and safety guidance
    • Safely assisting and isolating persons who become ill while in the court facility, namely persons who exhibit or believe they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19
    • Cleaning and disinfecting rooms, common areas and surfaces

Information and instructions for court users

  • Provide accessible information in advance to court users on the health and safety measures in place in court facilities. For example, using plain language,
    • Prepare a communication package
    • Post updates and Frequently Asked Questions on the courts’ website
    • Attach health and safety guidance to summonses and appearance notices
    • Post social media feeds as the court operations or health and safety measures evolve
    • Send electronic updates to the law society and legal associations
  • Include practical tips for court users on how to prepare for attending court – for example, conduct a self-screening assessment, bring a mask, attend at a specific time and entry point, contact the court in advance if any special arrangements are required to assist them in accessing court hearings or services
  • Direct court users on how to notify the court if they develop symptoms of COVID-19, are exposed to a positive case, or have travelled internationally within 14 days before attending court, or if they contract COVID-19 within 14 days after attending court
  • Provide clear instructions to court users upon their arrival at the court facility about
    • Health and safety measures in place, and how to comply with them
    • Court personnel available to answer questions, and where to find them
    • What to do if they become ill while in the court facility, namely if they exhibit or believe they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19

Screening and contact tracing

  • Conduct health screening of all court users and personnel upon their arrival at the court facility, and establish a protocol for handling cases where COVID-19 symptoms are present
  • Wherever possible and subject to applicable legislation, support the local health authority’s testing and contact tracing efforts by
    • Collecting basic information on all people who enter the court facility, including their name and contact information (such as phone number or email), date and time of visit, and specific areas visited in the facility
    • Establishing protocols on the proper handling, storage, retention, dissemination and destruction of any personal information collected
    • Designating court personnel to liaise with the local public health authority as needed, including to help identify and notify any persons exposed to COVID-19 in the court setting
  • Establish a communications strategy to inform court users and personnel rapidly of any positive cases in the courts, and of response measures taken to notify exposed persons and ensure the continued health and safety of all court users and personnel, while protecting the privacy and personal information of those who have tested positive or been exposed to the virus

Hygiene, cleaning and disinfecting

  • Require all court users and personnel to disinfect their hands with sanitizer upon entering the court facility
  • Provide hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol at entrances and exits, on desks and tables, in occupied workspaces, and close to high touch surfaces and common areas (e.g., next to elevators, washrooms)
  • Establish cleaning and disinfecting protocols and frequent cleaning schedules, as recommended by public health authorities and occupational health and safety experts
    • Create a checklist of all high touch surfaces, equipment and shared spaces to be cleaned, and their respective cleaning frequency
    • Clean courtrooms at minimum once a day, and ideally also between hearings
    • Clean and disinfect high touch surfaces and shared spaces (e.g. witness stands, counsel tables) between each use by a different participant
    • Record when cleaning and disinfecting has occurred

Level 4: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Non-Medical Masks (NMMs)

  • Provide NMMs to all court users and personnel, and promote their use as recommended by public health authorities
  • Provide clear instructions to all court users and personnel on how to safely put on, wear and take off NMMs
  • Establish protocols governing the wearing of NMMs in court facilities and courtrooms and communicate them to all court users and personnel
  • Implement measures to accommodate and protect court personnel and court users – such as use of face shields and Plexiglas barriers – when NMMs cannot safely be worn due to age or health reasons, or should be removed to ensure the integrity of court proceedings
  • Consult with occupational health and safety experts to identify any court personnel whose functions may require the use of PPE such as gloves or face shields
  • Provide safety training to court personnel on the use of NMMs and PPE, as required by occupational health and safety laws and regulations