The High Court President has strongly criticised lawyers for not complying with public health regulations.

In a letter to the chairperson of the Bar Council, the group representing barristers, Ms Justice Mary Irvine said the scenes in one particular part of the Four Courts, could have caused a public scandal if a photograph had been published.

And if this was not remedied, she warned, the Courts Service would stop or reduce all non-remote hearings.

A similar letter has been sent to the President of the Law Society, which represents solicitors.

Ms Justice Irvine told Senior Counsel Maura McNally that she had received several complaints that members of the legal profession were not complying with social distance guidance or guidance from the court in relation to wearing face coverings. This was happening all over the country, she said.

She said it was disappointing to hear that Courts Service staff who had asked barristers to comply, had on occasion, received a dismissive or aggressive response.

The High Court President said she had decided to walk through the round hall and the corridors of the Four Courts building each day this week to observe what was happening for herself.

She had seen on almost every occasion, practitioners talking in very close proximity to each other.

Ms Justice Irvine said there were more barristers breaching the social distancing obligations than complying with them. And she said the scene in one particular area, at various times, could have created a public scandal if a photograph had been taken and published.

She described hordes of people in the area, and said they could have easily remained socially distanced if they had carried on their business in an adjacent corridor.

Ms Justice Irvine said she found it hard to believe those responsible were professionals who were well versed in the dangers of Covid-19 and whose livelihoods were on the line. Regardless of the rising infection rate, and significant additional restrictions, they were continuing to put themselves and others at risk, she said.

The High Court President said her principal concern was for litigants who would be prejudiced if the Courts Service decided that the High Court would have to reverse the process of "opening up" because of the behaviour of practitioners.

She said she was also acutely aware of the terrible consequences that a shutdown of all physical hearings would have on the livelihoods of barristers and solicitors, particularly younger barristers who are just getting started.

She said they must appreciate that their actions had the potential to adversely impact not only their own health and financial welfare but also to damage or destroy that of their colleagues.

Ms Justice Irvine said she appreciated everybody was exhausted due to the changes that had to be made as a result of Covid-19.

But she asked Ms McNally to impress on members of the bar, how important it was to conduct themselves "in a manner consistent with their obligations to their colleagues and the legal profession as a whole".

She said she had been told by the Chief Executive of the Courts Service, that if this continued, it would "force the cessation or a significant reduction" in all non-remote hearings.

The Chairperson of the Bar Council, Maura McNally, acknowledged to members that the vast majority of practitioners were cooperating with public health measures. 

But she urged all members to visibly support and comply with them.  She also said she appreciated that on occasion, the staggering of court lists could lead to a back up of practitioners outside courtrooms through no fault of their own. 

The Director General of the Law Society, Ken Murphy, said solicitors should and must comply with guidelines to protect everyone and to ensure the courts stayed open. 

He acknowledged courthouses were not designed for social distancing.  And he said the vicinity of court houses and court rooms were forums for discussions and negotiations and resolution.  

This was difficult to do while maintaining social distancing but it was necessary this should be done.  

It was in everyone's interests that the courts stayed open he said, and he commended the work being done on this. 

Many practitioners, responding to the story on social media, pointed out the difficulties in conducting sensitive negotiations in corridors around the courts, while maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.  

Others welcomed Ms Justice Irvine's intervention, saying they had not felt safe in the Four Courts.