Action Committee on Court Operations in Response to COVID-19

Action Committee on Court Operations in Response to COVID-19

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Courtroom Symptom Appearance and Related Situations

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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.

Call 9-1-1 if symptoms are acute and life threatening (e.g., severe respiratory problems).

Courts across the country are in the process of reopening their courtrooms and gradually resuming in-person hearings. At the same time, many jurisdictions have administrative measures in place to promote awareness and compliance with physical distancing rules and other changes to the court environment, including measures to monitor court staff and users for symptoms or cases of exposure to COVID-19 prior to entry into the court environment (e.g., screening).

That being said, despite the implementation and strict enforcement of controls at the entrance to the courts, special circumstances may require emergency measures to ensure everyone’s safety. This Tip Sheet seeks to outline these measures, which are intended to complement but not replace the hierarchy of control measures recommended by public health authorities as an integrated strategy to minimize risks in court environments, as outlined in the Orienting Principles on Safe and Accessible Courts. The emergency measures outlined in this Tip Sheet may need to be adapted to the local context, taking into account the individuals concerned and the recommendations of the local public health authority.

The staff member within each court who is responsible for the application of administrative controls at the entrance to the court (hereafter referred to as the “court contact person”) may also act as a point of contact for any questions arising from the application of this Tip Sheet, including contacting local public health authorities regarding suspected or confirmed cases. The identity and role of the designated contact person should be clearly communicated to all visitors to the court facility and participants in court proceedings.

Symptoms of COVID-19

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, symptoms can vary from person to person. They may also vary in different age groups. Some of the more commonly reported symptoms include:

  • new or worsening cough
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • temperature equal to or over 38°C
  • feeling feverish
  • chills
  • fatigue or weakness
  • muscle or body aches
  • new loss of smell or taste
  • headache
  • gastrointestinal symptoms (abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting)
  • feeling very unwell.

The evidence also indicates that the virus can be transmitted to others from someone who is infected but not showing symptoms. This includes people who have not yet developed symptoms (pre-symptomatic) or never will develop symptoms (asymptomatic). Additional information can be provided by local health public authorities.

People who may Develop Symptoms

  • Members of the judiciary (judges, prothonotary, justice of the peace, judicial officers, etc.)
  • Court staff (clerk, sheriff, security personnel, judicial assistant, etc.)
  • Any other person who is in the court to provide a service to a participant (lawyer, probation officer, drug addiction worker, etc.)
  • Members of the public (witness, juror, auditors, etc.)
  • Victims and the persons who accompany them
  • Offenders, accused persons and inmates

A member of the judiciary or court staff who exhibits or believes they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 should:

  • Wear a non-medical mask (NMM), or preferably a medical mask if available, if not already doing so;
  • Notify the court contact person or their supervisor;
  • Go home directly and avoid using public transit or ride share if possible. If unable to leave, in particular for security reasons, isolate in a room reserved for that purpose until such time as they are able to leave the facility;
  • Contact their health care provider or local public health authority and follow their advice.

When a member of the public, a witness, a person who is in the court to provide a service to a participant, or a victim or the person who accompanies them exhibits or believes they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, they should:

  • Wear a non-medical mask (NMM), or preferably a medical mask if available, if not already doing so;
  • Go home directly and avoid using public transit or ride share if possible. If unable to leave, in particular for security reasons, isolate in a room reserved for this purpose until such time as they are able to leave the facility;
  • Contact their health care provider or local public health authority and follow their advice.

Where the member of the public is a juror, the above should be done in a manner that complies with jury instructions to ensure both the safety of those present and the integrity of the trial, including the use of the Jury Tip Sheets. For example, a jury member who is still sequestered could be escorted to their hotel room pending further instruction from the trial judge.

When an offender, accused or inmate exhibits or believes they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, the presiding judge or the court contact person should invite them to wear a non-medical mask (NMM), or preferably a medical mask if available. With the consent of the presiding judge, the court contact person should ensure that they be placed in isolation in a room reserved for that purpose and that they be removed from the premises as soon as possible. The court contact person should also inform the detention centre, if applicable, so that it can apply institutional protocols and determine whether additional measures, including testing, are required.

Furthermore, if the symptoms appear during the hearing of a case, the presiding judge could decide to suspend the proceedings and evacuate the room so that it can be cleaned and disinfected. The presiding judge, in consultation with the various participants to the hearing and, as feasible, with the local health authority, will then have to decide whether the hearing can resume. Similarly, if a participant to a hearing has been in contact with someone who has been infected, the presiding judge may decide on a case-by-case basis to suspend the proceedings after consulting the other participants and, as feasible, the local health authority.

In both cases, several factors may come into play, including the following:

  • Is there another courtroom available?
  • If the person who experienced symptoms is a court staff member (e.g., a clerk), can they be replaced at short notice?
  • If the person is a participant to the hearing (e.g., a member of the judiciary, a lawyer, a witness, a party, an inmate), does their health permit them to continue the hearing remotely from a room set aside for that purpose?
  • Is this an urgent matter for which a postponement is not possible?
  • When the local health authority offers emergency testing, can the matter be delayed in order to conduct emergency testing of the persons who were in contact with the individual?

Daily Reminder and Measures in Case of Doubt

At the beginning of each hearing, the judge should provide a friendly reminder of the contents of this Tip Sheet and invite anyone who exhibits or believes they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or has questions about their own health or that of a third party to communicate with the court contact person. When the doubts relate to the state of health of others, the contact person may approach them in order to re-initiate the control measures that precede entry into the facility.

Cleaning and Disinfecting

Once a person has experienced symptoms while at the court facility, or if the court contact person is informed that a pre- symptomatic or asymptomatic person who has since tested positive for COVID-19 was in the court facility, the court contact person should try to determine where in the facility the person may have been and what surfaces and objects the person may have touched to see what needs to be cleaned and disinfected. Additional guidance on cleaning and disinfecting can be found in the Guidance on protecting court personnel and court users and general practices for cleaning and disinfecting.

Non-medical masks (NMMs)

It is recommended that courthouses hold a supply of well constructed, well-fitting non-medical masks (NMMs) that would be sufficient to accommodate court users who require a mask to enter the premises.

Provide clear instructions to court users on how to safely put on, wear, and remove a mask and ensure masks are properly worn.

Isolation Room

If the layout of the premises permits, a room should be set aside for the isolation of the person who exhibits or believes they are experiencing symptoms. Ideally, this room would be equipped with the audio-visual equipment necessary for the immediate resumption of the hearing, if the person’s state of health and applicable rules and legislation permit. The room should be cleaned and disinfected according to the facility’s protocols after each use.

Contact Tracing

Wherever possible and subject to applicable legislation, collect basic information on all people who enter the court facility, including their name and contact information (such as phone number or email), the date and time of their visit, and the place they visited (ex: courtroom, court registry, etc.). This will assist the local public health authority in conducting contact tracing if a person who attended the court facility subsequently tests positive for COVID-19.

Subject to applicable legislation, ensure that all information collected to support contact tracing efforts is handled properly, stored securely, disseminated only as necessary to the local public health authority, and destroyed rapidly once it is no longer needed.

Designate a court contact person to liaise with the local public health authority as needed to support testing and contact tracing efforts.

Resources and References

Document last updated February 09, 2021