Ireland’s judges have decided to limit all physical court sittings to no more than two hours to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The decision was made arising from health advice given on Tuesday to the Houses of the Oireachtas concerning persons who may be in the same room, even though practising social distancing, for more than two hours.
The director general of the Law Society, Ken Murphy, described the move as “very surprising indeed” and questioned the logic of the advice received by the Oireachtas.
“It is bordering on bizarre that Ireland is being given this advice for the first time more that two months into the Covid-19 crisis, where the public health advice, up to now, has been admirably clear.”
He pointed out that the Dáil had frequently sat for periods of well in excess of two hours during the crisis, and that businesses and workplaces of all kinds had been kept in ignorance by the Department of Health, in respect of the advice.
“The question has to be asked if there has been some miscommunication and overreaction here.”
The chief executive of the Bar of Ireland, Ciara Murphy, said there was a lot of concern being expressed by barristers in relation to the reduced court sittings and that the Courts Service had said it hoped to be able to provide greater clarity later on Wednesday.
“At the moment, we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow,” she said.
Mr Justice Peter Kelly, president of the High Court, read a statement in court on Wednesday, on behalf of the Chief Justice and presidents of all the courts, arising from what had happened in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
It stated the Courts Service was unaware, until the matter became public on Tuesday, “of what appears to be additional safety considerations beyond those already published”.
It said the plans which had been devised by the judiciary and the Courts Service to expand the number of physical court hearings had taken full account of all published advice.
The Courts Service has sought further urgent advice on this matter as it clearly has the potential to affect the conduct of court hearings or sessions likely to involve judges and registrars, together with others, being in a courtroom for more than two hours in a day, the statement said.
Pending receipt of that advice, the court presidents have determined that all court sittings will last for no more than two hours a day, it was stated.
That decision will not affect remote hearings which will continue as planned, it added.
The Oireachtas was told earlier this week that it would be a breach of Covid-19 guidelines for witnesses in Leinster House to be in the same place together for more than two hours even if they changed location.
The advice was circulated in advance of first witnesses appearing on Tuesday before the Dáil’s new committee on the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Documentation circulated amongst members of the Oireachtas business committee stated that a number of the witnesses were “unwilling to attend together for more than one two-hour session.”
The document said that some of the witnesses “communicated orally to the Clerk to the Committee” that “it was a breach of the guidelines to have witnesses together for more than two hours, notwithstanding the fact that their locations would change” between sessions.
Further advice was sought from consultant microbiologist Prof Martin Cormican. In written correspondence to the Oireachtas, Mr Cormican said that “if a person at one of the hearings develops Covid-19 in the two days after the hearing they attended and if the hearing lasted for two hours or for more then everyone else who was in the room for that two hour period will be designated a Covid contact and will be advised to self-isolate for 14 days.”
He wrote: “There little reason to believe that 1 hour and 55 minutes of exposure is materially safer that 2 hours and five minutes of exposure however if it is intended to put a time limit on the hearing as a technical measure to avoid the possible consequence of people being designated contacts then it will be necessary to have the people leave the room before 2 hours have elapsed and not at 2 hours and it will be necessary that they do not reassemble on that same day.”
Speaking on Tuesday evening, the chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said the general guidance was that no two people should spend a cumulative period of more than two hours in the same room in any 24-hour period.
It was not a hard and fast rule for all sectors, he said, and factors such as the degree of ventilation, the size of the room, and the nature of the work being done, were all relevant.