A solicitor experiences a day at court differently from the parties themselves. For a solicitor, the court building is usually a bustling environment, crammed full of friendly and familiar faces. However, attending court during the pandemic has been a very different experience.
I attended court recently to appear in a proof (evidential hearing). Court buildings usually have open doors, as most cases can be watched by the public, but the doors to the building itself were locked, with entry being controlled by staff.
Inside, the building was deserted, with only skeletal staff. As the only case calling that day, I had the place to myself. That was a far cry from the set up I knew pre-pandemic, which usually involved a good-natured race between solicitors to have their case called in the busy court room first.
Had the court been so busy, changing into my gown and reviewing my papers might have proved problematic – only two solicitors were allowed in the solicitors’ room at any one time; all but two chairs had been taped off. For context, that room is usually packed full of suitcases, gowns and thought provoking discussion between solicitors. For me, the room was silent and a far cry from the comfort and second opinion that we often crave before arguing a case.
When the case called and parties moved to the court room, I saw just how big an impact social distancing has had on litigation. Whilst face masks in court were not mandatory, social distancing and frequent hand sanitising was.
As solicitor for the Respondent, I sat, alone, at the solicitors table in front of the bench, surrounded by hand sanitiser and wipes.
The Claimant, who ordinarily would sit at the opposite end of the table, sat far away in the jury box.
The witness stand was used as usual, but was wiped down thoroughly after each witness. Any witness who wished to remain in court after giving their evidence was to sit in the seats usually reserved for the press.
Any members of the public would sit far apart in the public gallery, most of which were taped off.
The distance between and position of the parties gave the hearing a rather informal feel, but it is a credit to the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service that, in some courts, evidential hearings are able to proceed whilst social distancing rules are in place.
The court may have looked and sounded very differently to what I recall before the pandemic, but the hearing proceeded successfully and safely, which sends a positive message to the public and the legal profession; we are beginning to get back to business, as (un)usual!