Courts must implement proper safety protocols — now

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“I will put my money on court closing one of these days.” The senior prosecutor who made the comment was speaking this week about the operational readiness of the Port Elizabeth Magistrate’s Court in the face of the disturbing  rise in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases.

At the court where he works in North End, the prosecutor said, security staff moved around the building without the requisite protective gear, including masks.

The situation has become so bad that one lawyer said he simply refused to enter the premises this week and instead made arrangements by telephone for a trial involving one of his clients to be postponed.

Other members of the legal community in Nelson Mandela Bay described similar conditions at the other courts in the metro.

In New Brighton, a clerk  of the court said staff were asked to sanitise their hands before entering — but that was it.

There were no other screening measures in place at the court building and safety guidelines were being flouted, she said.

“It is pandemonium here in the passage, with everyone treating it like a catch-up session. We don’t even have a Covid-19 plan in place.”

Another prosecutor described how inmates from St Albans Prison were being sent to court without masks.

At the same time, inmates in the prison’s awaiting-trial section are protesting against an alleged lack of provisions to protect them against Covid-19, among other grievances.

Previously, they had voiced their concerns about a potential explosion of the virus at the prison because they were not being tested.

These are inmates who are still expected to move through the courts, so it is imperative that proper safety systems be put in place — in prisons and at courts — to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

SA’s justice system already has a reputation, among some members of the public, for failing many of those who deserve justice.

It cannot afford a situation where courts grind to a halt.

This would merely add to the distrust in the system, which comes with its own set of problems —  not least of them being that many people still believe reporting crime is a futile exercise.

Equally, the courts cannot be allowed to  continue operating during this dangerous pandemic without first ensuring that all the necessary safety protocols are in place.

It is imperative that this is urgently  addressed  — for the safety of all those involved and the legitimacy of the justice system itself.

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