This outlet, as you may guess by the title, is a partisan publication which exists to provide a voice and platform to the unionist community. However, during times such as the crisis we face, our partisan differences fade into insignificance, therefore if there are issues to be raised or highlighted that affect any section of our entire community, then we will be fighting to give a voice to such concerns.
There has been much discussion this week in relation to the approach to be taken in relation to our schools and courts. Let me first start by declaring an interest; I have already taken the decision last Wednesday to remove my 5 year old son from school, and secondly in relation to our courts, I am involved in a range of tribunal cases on behalf of others and indeed an ongoing criminal case in which I am self-representing. I have skin in the game.
Let me start first with the schools. I decided to remove my son from school primarily because I believe that he is vulnerable to catching the disease which could prove extremely dangerous for him as he has some very minor chest issues, but also because of the risk that he could become a carrier of the disease and infect older relatives, perhaps fatally. I took that unilateral decision as a parent because it was clearly in the best interests of my son. I didn’t need to apply to a court for permission or issue legal letters; any reasonable person would conclude that it was pretty much impossible that any parent was ever going to be prosecuted for taking such reasonable steps.
I am self employed and therefore fortunate that I am able to take care of my son and for the most part organise my working life around his needs. I understand many people are in a less fortunate position. Presumably such issues are weighing heavily on the minds of the Education Authorities who are trying to strike a balance between the overriding objective of ensuring public services, primarily the NHS, are running to full capacity (and if parents have to stay at home to mind children this vital objective may be impeded) and protecting children and their relatives from the disease.
There is no easy solution. My view, and it is little more than one man’s opinion which is worth no more or less than any other persons, is that parents should have a choice in the period as we incrementally move towards full closures.
However even this approach is fraught with difficulty, what about for example the teachers who whilst the option of attending school remains open will continue to have to be in work, not by choice but by necessity?
If schools are the most difficult case, courts clearly are among the easiest to resolve, yet despite this the Justice Department appear to be creating more confusion and problems, rather than providing clarity and solutions.
If we take an analytical view of all of this; the Government’s guidance is that we should all avoid non-essential contact. The Lord Chief Justice has outlined what passes as emergency or essential court business, which broadly encompasses cases of those in custody, new charge sheets or matters of an urgent nature impacting upon liberty and safety.
A court list of 50-100 people up on summary only summonses, or who are already on bail for indicatable or hybrid matters, self evidently do not fall into the Lord Chief Justice’s categorisation of essential court business. If we pivot back to the Government’s advice, then we find ourselves in the most illogical position whereby courts are remaining in operation conducting non-essential business.
In his guidance issued today the Lord Chief Justice directed that from 18 March 2020 “judges should not require the attendance of persons who do not need to be there, or who express individual concerns.”
This is, quite frankly, about as clear as mud. It seems there are two tests set for non-attendance, namely no requirement to be there (no clarity is issued on how that is measured) or those who express individual concerns.
Let us turn to the second avenue, namely an individual expressing concerns. Does this apply to solicitors and barristers? If they express concern that they do not want to risk their health or the potential they could infect a family member, will their client’s cases be adjourned? If not, why not?
It is outrageous to expect legal professionals to continue working in what is clearly an environment ripe for the mass transmission of a potentially fatal disease. The United States Supreme Court has halted for the first time since 1918, yet the Magistrates Courts in Northern Ireland- which ram people together in a confined room like sardines at the best of times- appear to want to trundle on.
I, as you may imagine, have no love for those legal professionals who take themselves over to the dark side of prosecuting (I jest), yet those individuals are in an even more precarious position. They won’t have the freedom to speak out or take their own conscientious approach, instead finding themselves wedded to the whims of the PPS and Justice Department. How is that fair on those individuals, and their families who may also be placed at risk by forcing those persons to inhibit such a toxic environment?
My case is due for a Preliminary Investigation on 30, 31 March and 1 April. As anyone following my social media will know I would go to trial tomorrow if I could, I am busting to get going. However, in this case I- and around 20 others involved- would be expected to sit for 3 days conducting what effectively amounts to a mini-trial in close proximity to others, within the confines of a public building with hundreds if not thousands passing through every day. Up to 6 police officers will be taken from duties to be cross-examined by me for hours on end, experts will have to board flights from England and even in the event the case was returned for Crown Court trial (which of course I will be arguing shouldn’t happen) then it isn’t going anywhere fast given its likely jury trials may not even commence again until September. Hardly essential business, is it?
That’s one example, of one person who is self-representing. What about barristers and solicitors who have countless numbers of such cases to deal with. Who is looking out for their health and well-being?
As much as it pains me to say it, the approach taken in the Republic of Ireland was far more effective and clearer. All non-essential court business was just administratively adjourned until after June 2020.
It strikes me that much of the confusion and problems are coming from a paralysed approach whereby people- acting in good faith- are trying to walk a tightrope to avoid any potential mistakes, and therefore aren’t really making any decisions at all.
We don’t have any football at the minute, so in that vein I am drawn to the not-too-distant happier memory of my own Saturday team talks. I never fail to remind my goalkeeper (who incidentally almost died 5 years ago) of one fundamental which I believe applies to life as much as football; if you are going to come for it (the ball), come. If you are going to stay, stay.
In basic terms; it is better to make a bad decision than make no decision at all.