Published: 19:32, 24 March 2020
| Updated: 19:33, 24 March 2020
The virus scare has thrown courts into disarray today with Maidstone Crown locking its doors moments before cases were to be heard.
But 40 miles away in Canterbury it was business as usual amid growing calls for a clampdown on the “dangerous unsanitised” environment.
Hours earlier, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered most people to stay put and not travel unless it was essential as the Coronavirus pandemic intensifies.
The command ignited unprecedented calls from the Criminal Bar Association urging lawyers to avoid courts.
Meanwhile, all jury trials are being halted to slash the risk of spreading Covid-19 infections, the Lord Chief Justice announced.
Lord Burnett of Maldon’s decision came following a backlash surrounding the safety of continuing with physical court hearings as the rest of the economy shuts down.
Outspoken barrister Oliver Kirk, a frequent lawyer at Canterbury Crown Court, today called for hearings to be pulled until attendees can be kept safe.
“Really, over the last week-and-a-half the feeling in court has been ‘what are we doing here’ - it really has been a very uncomfortable feeling.
“We know, we can see what is happening with this virus, we are a profession who look at evidence.
“There are unsanitary conditions and we are all very aware of the danger working in those environments.
“There needs to be a pause and it needs to be looked at whether court buildings can be used at the moment.”
Indeed, some 20-30 people can sit in the same seat during one court day, robing rooms are often small, interpreters and guards sit in close proximity to defendants.
At Maidstone today, one judge was about to hear the case of an alleged drug dealer who had arrived two weeks ago from prison wearing blue surgical gloves, a face mask and a scarf over his head.
Security staff at Maidstone were expecting two prisoners to arrive by van from Elmley Prison.
But shortly after 9am, while ushers were preparing the courts for the day's hearings, staff were told there would be no cases heard.
The three judges were expected cases about assault, rape, sex assault, wounding and the case of Brandon Gnamian, who appeared in gloves and a mask, and is accused of being concerned in the supply of crack cocaine and heroin.
It comes as his Honour Mark Weekes, 45, who has presided over countless high-profile criminal cases, continues to self-isolate.
"Justice is precious and we will find a way – but ploughing on is not the answer. We need to pause and to plan..."
Canterbury's resident judge, Simon James, told the court the judicial system is experiencing “unprecedented times”, as the Criminal Bar Association continued calls for tougher safety measures.
A spokesman said: “The Public Health England advice and that of the Prime Minister is clear - we must all stay home.
"Social gatherings are limited to groups of two. Court work is simply unworkable.
"It is our public duty to stay away.This is a necessary public health measure."
Meanwhile, barristers in Kent are being told not to meet their clients but to conduct interviews via phone or Skype. Cases are also being heard with barristers linked to the court by phone.
Canterbury staff are also expecting to introduce "a raft of safety measures to minimise the risk of infection", a senior official has said.
The tighter measures come after a wave of top lawyers urged the government to clampdown on court hearings.
Joanna Hardy from Red Lion Chambers, which represents scores of Kent clients each year, Tweeted on Sunday: "Assembling the public is not sustainable at the moment. It runs contrary to advice and contrary to common sense.
"Justice is precious and we will find a way - but ploughing on is not the answer. We need to pause and to plan.
"We need to be better than this."
More by this authorSean Axtell