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President of the High Court critical of lawyers for failure to comply with Covid-19 guidelines

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Solicitors and barristers have been upbraided by the President of the High Court for failing to comply with the Covid-19 guidelines.

The top judge said she had witnessed scenes in recent days in the Four Courts that would cause a “public scandal” if photographed and published.

Ms Justice Mary Irvine said she found it hard to believe that those responsible were “professionals well versed in the dangers of Covid-19 and whose livelihoods are on the line”.

The former Supreme Court judge who was appointed President of the High Court in June, said she has been doing as much as she can to have as much litigation as possible heard in the context of the pandemic.

However in recent days she had received complaints that members of the legal profession are “simply not complying with social distance guidance or indeed the court’s own guidance in respect of the wearing of face coverings.

“This is not just happening in Dublin, it is happening throughout the country,” she said in a letter on Thursday to the Law Society and the Bar Council.

“And, it is disappointing to hear from some members of Courts Service staff who have asked barristers to comply with these requirements, that they have, on occasion, received a dismissive or aggressive response.”

In the light of these complaints “and odd as it may sound”, she had decided to walk through the Round Hall in the Four Courts and along the corridors on the ground, first and second floors, every day this week, to observe what is happening.

“Regrettably, on almost every occasion I have come across pockets of practitioners talking/consulting in very close proximity to each other.

“I would go so far as to say that there are more practitioners offending than complying with their social distancing obligations.

“In particular, the scene outside Court 29 and the Master’s Court at various times yesterday, if photographed and published, might have created a public scandal.

‘Hard to believe’

“There were hordes of people on the landing who could easily have carried on their business while remaining socially distanced by using the adjacent top corridor.”

She said she found it hard to believe that those responsible for scenes such as she had witnessed were professionals well versed in the dangers of Covid-19 and whose livelihoods are on the line, but who, regardless of the fact that the infection rate was rising, were continuing to put themselves and others at risk.

The High Court president said her primary concern was for litigants who might suffer if the Courts Service had to reverse its opening up process “because practitioners will not abide by social distancing requirements and the wearing of face coverings”.

She said she was also “acutely aware of the terrible consequences” that a shutdown of physical hearings would have on the livelihoods of barristers and solicitors, particular those just starting out in their careers.

“Surely, every member of the bar and the solicitor’s profession must by now appreciate that their actions have the potential not only to adversely impact their own their own health and financial welfare but damage if not destroy that of their colleagues?”

She said she had been told by the chief executive of the Courts Service, Angela Denning, that a continuation of present practices would force the cessation or a significant reduction in all non-remote hearings.

The letter was sent on Thursday and in an immediate response to its members, the Chair of the Bar Council, Maura McNally SC, said she wanted to acknowledge and thank “the vast majority of practitioners” for their co-operation in adhering to the Covid guidelines.

She urged all members to visibly support and comply with the public health measures, and attached a link to Ms Justice Irvine’s letter.

She also said that she appreciated that there were occasions when, through no fault of practitioners, the staggering of a court list could cause a back up outside a court room, thereby causing a congregation of people in the corridors.

The Law Society have not yet responded.

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