Safe and Accessible Courts: Orienting principles for Canadian Court Operations in Response to COVID-19
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has developed a framework of control measures that can be adapted to various work environments in order to support the safe restoration of activities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These control measures embody common elements of federal, provincial, and territorial public health approaches and occupational health and safety legislation. Selecting workplace-appropriate control measures involves identifying risks and implementing corresponding risk mitigation measures. This engages occupational health and safety requirements for consultation with employee representatives, as applicable to various employment relationships that exist in the court setting. Risk identification and mitigation also present an opportunity to consider broader accessibility issues from the outset, ensuring that access is as broad and safe as possible, including for those who may face multiple layers of vulnerability or additional access to justice challenges.
Identifying and Mitigating Risks
In this context:
- court environment refers to any place where court hearings are held or court services are performed or delivered, including common areas (such as foyers, washrooms, seating areas, and cafeterias) used by court personnel and court users;
- court personnel refers to all people involved in the operation of a court, including judges, security staff, and administrative officials; and
- court users refers to anyone who accesses a court environment, including lawyers, litigants, accused persons, members of the public, and persons who perform related services within court environments (such as police, counselors, and social service providers).
An effective method for identifying risk is to take a “mental journey” through use of the court environment from the perspective of different court personnel and users, noting the variety of elements that make up the environment as a whole to create an inventory of risks. The questions below are intended to be illustrative, not exhaustive:
- Geographic and community setting: What is the local rate of infection? Is the community densely populated (i.e., increasing the risk that an infected person may enter the court) or sparsely populated (i.e., lowering the risk of community transmission). Is it urban or rural? What unique factors related to community dynamics and resources must be considered, having regard to the nature of the court (e.g., circuit/itinerant court; drug treatment, mental health, youth or other specialized court)?
- Personnel and user populations: Do court users and personnel include individuals at higher risk of suffering severe health consequences should they contract COVID-19? Do court users and personnel include persons at higher risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19? (See here for an elaboration of population risk factors). Are there vulnerability factors among the populations the court serves (e.g., income, employment, housing, and literacy levels)? How are community demographics taken into account in scheduling (e.g., childcare issues, school closures) and access to court (e.g., reliance on public transit)?
- Physical elements: Does use of the court environment involve physical contact with common surfaces, doorways, elevator buttons, court technology, or other material? Are some elements of the court environment especially prone to individuals congregating in close proximity? Is the court environment accessible to persons with disabilities, including those with mobility challenges?
PHAC recommends employing a hierarchy of control measures, conceived of as a reverse pyramid, to effectively mitigate risk. This approach reflects the requirements of applicable federal, provincial, and territorial occupational health and safety legislation.
Elimination of the hazard is the first control measure to be considered. Consequently, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, physical distancing is the foundation for any risk mitigation strategy. Additional elements can be introduced where physical distancing is impossible or insufficient. At all points, consideration should be given to ensuring selected mitigation strategies do not introduce barriers to access, particularly for vulnerable court users.
An inverted pyramid divided into four coloured levels, each labeled with text in white. From the top of the inverted pyramid (the widest part) to the bottom (the point), the levels are: blue labeled “Physical Distancing”; green labeled “Engineering Controls”; yellow labeled “Administrative Controls”; and red labeled “PPE”.
- Physical distancing: Maintaining 2 metres' (6 feet) distance between individuals can effectively prevent transmission of COVID-19. Implementation in court environments could include physical restructuring, use of visual cues and signage, directional controls in hallways, scheduling and volume controls on facility access, reliance on larger hearing spaces, and diversion to remote and technological alternatives, among other measures.
- Engineering controls: Where physical distancing is not possible or is inadequate, engineering controls can include: plexiglass barriers for certain types of interaction (e.g., with security or registry officials); automatic doors; no-contact document drops; increased ventilation; designated isolation rooms for persons who become ill.
- Administrative controls: These measures help to communicate, reinforce, and supplement physical distancing and other environmental adjustments. They can include: screening court personnel and users for COVID-19 symptoms or exposure prior to entering court environments; increasing the frequency and intensity of cleaning; adjusting workplace policies to encourage ill employees to stay home; staggering court services, hearings, and work hours to control personnel and user levels; training court personnel on essential safety measures and practices.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE): In accordance with public health advice, equipment intended to prevent the spread of the virus, such as non-medical masks, faceshields and gloves, may be considered in combination with the preceding control measures, especially for spaces in which physical distancing is not possible. These could include common areas that experience high volumes of human traffic or small spaces requiring close proximity. Medical-grade equipment (PPE) that safeguards the wearer against exposure to COVID-19 may be appropriate in certain circumstances.
Broadly shared and accessible communications are vital to ensuring that protocols are followed and that all court users feel safe within the court environment.
- Is there clear and visible signage throughout the courthouse and courtrooms to ensure court personnel and users are aware of and able to follow health and safety protocols?
- What communication formats regarding the court's health and safety protocols could assist users who may face barriers in reading, hearing, speaking, or understanding?
- Would additional language versions assist court users?
- Is the court able to provide information on the court's health and safety measures to users prior to their arrival at court (e.g., through posting on the court website and “push” messaging to key stakeholders (professional networks, community and support groups))?
- What training is available (e.g., for court personnel) to support effective communication of safety measures?
- Is there a way to facilitate two-way communication such that the court can receive feedback from court users on how safety protocols are working in practice, whether needs are evolving, and what adjustments may be useful (e.g., exit surveys, online questionnaires, informal interviews)?
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