Courts hope to resume full-day hearings ‘as soon as tomorrow’

Courts Service is believed to have received advice from expert who raised issue of ‘two-hour limit’ at Dáil committee hearing

The courts system is expected to resume full-day physical hearings shortly after receiving etailed advice earlier this morning on the question of the length of court sittings.

On the basis of the advice the heads of the various courts “are very hopeful that full sittings will be able to resume as soon as tomorrow, once certain additional procedures have been put in place,” a spokesman for the Courts Service said.

A further update is to be issued in the near future

It is understood the Courts Service received detailed advice from the same expert who gave advice recently to a Dáil committee.

The receipt of the advice by the Dáil Business Committee raised questions over whether there should be gatherings in Leinster House that went on for more than two hours on any one day.

This in turn led to people asking whether the same issue did not arise for those in other workplaces.

On Wednesday the judiciary announced the courts were going to restrict physical court sittings to a maximum of two hours each day, pending further advice.

The sequence of events that led to the courts' decision began with the decision of the Dáil Special Committee on Covid-19 Response to hear evidence on Tuesday from the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan; the chief executive of the HSE, Paul Reid; the secretary general of the Dept of Health, Jim Breslin; and others.

In an article about the proposed hearing in the Sunday Business Post, former chief executive of the HSE Tony O’Brien questioned the wisdom of having the top people involved in giving advice on Ireland’s pandemic policies, together in an enclosed space.

He also said it made a “mockery” of public health guidance.

On Monday the Business Committee was told that a number of the witnesses due before the Covid committee were not willing to meet together for any session that went on longer than two hours.

An email to committee members said it had been communicated to the committee, orally, that it was a breach of the guidelines to have witnesses together for more than two hours in a single session.

Advice was sought from Prof Martin Cormican, consultant microbiologist Galway University Hospitals. As part of his response, Prof Cormican said he wanted to raise a technical point that had arisen in his conversations with colleagues in public health.

He then explained the contact tracing system requires that a person who had been in “an enclosed space” for more than two hours over a 24-hour period with a person who was infected with coronavirus would be advised to self-isolate for 14 days, as they would be designated a contact.

“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 two hours have elapsed,” he told the committee by email.

Also, people who had been in a “room” for up to two hours, should not reassemble on that same day, he told the committee.

It is understood the Courts Service has this morning received detailed advice from Prof Cormican and, on that basis, the judiciary is intending to go back to “full day” hearings.

Many cases take much less than a full day to be heard, and so the lawyers and others involved in a case would often not be in a courtroom for more than two hours.

Judges and registrars have been moving between courtrooms between cases, as part of the response to the pandemic.

The Oireachtas Business Committee is scheduled to resume its consideration of what to do in relation to committee hearings, and full sittings of the Dáil, next Tuesday.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent