Finding out about COVID-19 incidents in BC courthouses and how you can help prevent them

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Note: NP 22 In-Person Proceedings and Attendance During COVID-19: Health and Safety Protocols was rescinded on April 11, 2022.

Public health officials have collaborated with the three BC courts and the provincial government’s Court Services Branch (it’s responsible for courthouse operation) to develop a detailed protocol to ensure timely and coordinated communication about COVID-19 testing and exposures in courthouses. This eNews outlines when and how that information will be communicated.

Why was the protocol established? Courthouses have a unique and essential role in communities. People rely on the right to access courts to resolve their legal disputes in a fair hearing where the rule of law applies. Many people who attend courthouses do not choose to be there but are compelled to attend by law. They need to feel confident that courts are safe and accessible.

Recognizing this, the Protocol clearly sets out responsibilities for investigating and communicating about COVID incidents at courthouses and creates helpful new public information resources.

Regional Health Authorities’ responsibilities
Since only Health Authorities have the information about COVID-19 incidents affecting courthouses, the Protocol provides that each Regional Health Authority will be responsible for investigating them, responding, and communicating with the courts, Court Services Branch, court participants, and the public, in a timely manner. They will also communicate with the Public Service Agency and WorkSafeBC where appropriate.

Regional Health Authorities are also responsible for providing access to COVID-19 testing for participants in court proceedings where, for example, someone is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and testing is needed to determine whether a trial can proceed as scheduled. The Protocol and Guidance Document mentioned below set out criteria for access to public health testing in these circumstances.

In addition, the Regional Health Authority is responsible for notifying the court participants involved if there is to be group testing at a courthouse.

Guidance for Courthouse Users During the COVID-19 Pandemic & BC Restart Plan
To address court users’ concerns about safety and potential exposure risks, the BC Centre for Disease Control and Public Health Ministry have created a helpful plain language
Guidance Document
explaining infection prevention measures that can be implemented both in courthouses and by individual court participants.

To learn about safety measures implemented in courthouses, see COVID-19 Court Recovery Operations on the BC government website and Notice NP 22: Health and Safety protocols for in-person proceedings during COVID-19 on the Provincial Court website. (Notice NP 22 was rescinded on April 11, 2022)

Personal Measures
The guide explains the things we can do as individuals to protect ourselves and others, including:

  • Maintaining physical distance/minimizing physical contact
  • Staying home when sick
  • Frequent hand washing
  • Practicing respiratory etiquette
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) (people are required to wear a face mask or face covering in courtrooms unless the presiding judge or justice directs otherwise)

It’s easy to take these things for granted when you’re reminded of them so often, but the guide contains valuable information about how to use these measures most effectively – both “do’s” and “don’ts”.

The combination of institutional and personal measures helps create safe environments by reducing the spread of a communicable disease like COVID-19. The guide notes that this combination, with routine and consistent implementation, increases the measures’ effectiveness. In other words, if we all adopt the personal measures listed here, do them properly, and make them routine, we can help reduce the risk of contracting and spreading the virus – in courthouses and elsewhere.

Public Information Resources
The BC Centre for Disease Control has added courthouses to its COVID-19 Public Exposures website.

Now you can find information about “courthouse exposure events and incidents” on the same website as school and flight exposures.

The website will report:
• COVID-19 exposures at courthouses where a medical health officer or public health specialist has determined there is a risk of infection to others
• incident investigations, notices and summaries related to potential COVID-19 clusters, outbreaks, or group testing
• courthouse site inspections

In addition to the information shared by health authorities, the Protocol provides that the Courts and the Ministry of the Attorney General may also communicate to the public the information they receive from health authorities as they deem necessary to maintain public confidence in the administration of justice.

Understanding public health terms
The term “courthouse” is used in the protocol, guidance document, and website to refer to all court locations, including circuit court locations. Other terms, including “COVID-19 Incidents”, “COVID-19 Exposure”, “COVID-19 Cluster”, and “Court Participants”, are defined in the protocol.