Coroners Court: Current COVID-19 Protocol
NB: The information on this page reflects the current COVID-19 alert level. For Coroners Court protocols during past alert levels, please refer to:
Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall
13 May 2020
1. Courts are an essential service. At Alert Level 2, and subject to the restrictions noted below, the Coroners Court will carry out all its usual work that can be safely supported. This requires the co-operation of all parties to ensure the courts function at the fullest extent they safely can in performance of their constitutional role.
2. Coroners conduct most of their work on the papers, without the need for a Court hearing. Alert Level 2 will not impact on coroners receiving new cases, making directions on files and making written findings.
3. The restrictions are:
a. Inquests and other hearings will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Hearings may proceed with participants in the Court or with some participants joining by audio-visual link (AVL) or with all participants joining by AVL.
b. If counsel, or other persons required or proposing to attend a hearing (for example, interested parties) are at higher risk of severe illness, immune-compromised or with a relevant underlying health condition, they should not attend Court. If this applies, the coroner should be advised so that alternative arrangements for the appearance can be made.
4. The Ministry of Justice has advised that it continues to take a number of steps to ensure the safety of those coming into courthouses during Alert Level 2, including:
a. A designated site officer to attend to hygiene, physical distancing and safe working practices.
b. Access will continue to be denied to those who:
i. have a temperature of 38°C or above;
ii. show signs of illness such as coughing and sneezing;
iii. report feeling unwell; or
iv. have had close-contact with a suspected, probable or confirmed case.
c. Limiting entry to those with business at court and members of the public who are given permission to enter.
d. Maintaining an orderly queuing system at courthouse entrances, reminding people not to enter if they are symptomatic, offering wipes for items placed in screening trays.
e. Maintaining a contact register.
f. PPE (gloves and facemasks) are available for all court participants. These supplies are located at the entrance point with security staff.
g. Maintaining a cleaning regime based on the Ministry of Health recommendations, with a wide range of deeper cleaning measures in key areas throughout public and non-public areas and regular cleans – for example during lunch breaks – to ensure that areas where there is high traffic are clean and sanitised.
h. Monitoring the provision of cleaning supplies such as soap and towels and ensuring availability of key products such as hand sanitiser at appropriate points around the courthouse.
i. Keeping under constant review all cleaning practices and procedures, to enable additional measures to be added if required.
j. Reminding those attending Court of the need to take personal responsibility for their own health and wellbeing – including washing hands regularly, following hygiene practices and, if unwell, following Ministry of Health guidance.
Health and safety guidance is also available from the Ministry of Justice.
5. So far as possible, counsel should take instructions and brief witnesses outside the courthouse, to minimise demand on interview rooms. Larger rooms will be made available for interviews, and counsel may request breaks to take instructions safely using those facilities.
6. Safe distancing will be observed in the courtroom, and the following hygiene practices can be expected:
a. Those working in the courtroom, including counsel and security staff, are required to maintain 1m social distancing, and alternate seats in public galleries will be taped off.
b. Cleaning products are available on site to enable staff and lawyers to keep their immediate areas clean (including AVL suites).
c. Face masks and gloves may be worn.
d. Hand sanitiser will be readily available within the courtroom.
e. The court will not normally permit documents to be handed up. Documents that parties wish to produce should be scanned and shared by email at the appropriate time.
7. Any concerns about health and safety practices in the Court should be raised with the Court manager in the first instance.
8. Accredited news media will continue to have entry to the court in order to report court proceedings, and to ensure continued open and transparent justice. Remote access for accredited news media, will continue to be facilitated in accordance with current protocols.
9. Counsel are expected to assist the court by:
a. Briefing clients and witnesses on public health messages:
i. Not to come to court if unwell.
ii. To advise counsel as early as possible if they are unable to attend court.
iii. Social distancing expectations in the courthouse and precincts.
iv. How exhibits will be handled in their case.
v. What they may expect by way of PPE and hygiene supplies in the courthouse.
vi. The limits on attendance by support persons and members of the public.
b. Reducing the need for attendance in the courthouse by counsel, their clients and witnesses by reviewing each attendance in advance and:
i. Seeking remote participation for appropriate witnesses.
ii. Seeking excusals from appearances in administrative hearings.
iii. Limiting the number of witnesses via the use of agreed facts.
c. Raising any deficiencies with cleaning, the availability of cleaning supplies or physical distancing with the site manager immediately.
10. At Alert Level 2, it remains possible that a new cluster of COVID-19 community transmission may be confirmed within the location served by a courthouse. In that event the Court will rely on official advice. Steps may be taken to reduce in-person attendances at the Court to help protect those working or appearing there. The extent of any reduction will depend on the circumstances and official advice or notices.
11. If a location is required to return to Alert Level 3 or 4, the Court is now better equipped for remote participation.
12. Triage should be identified as a primary means to manage demand, and there should be clear expectations that counsel will co-operate and take a pro-active approach to ensure that unnecessary in-person appearances are minimised and use is made of remote participation whenever appropriate.
13. Any queries about a case should be made to the Case Manager of the coroner assigned to the case.
14. If participants do not know which coroner is assigned to the case, they can contact their local Coronial Services Unit.