How many lay people know what the potential consequences of a voluntary police interview are? My guess: not many. If I'm correct, this is worrying given in the last couple of months I've heard criminal defence solicitors being warned the number of voluntary interviews could increase due to bail changes. Youth justice practitioners are being told they're already on the rise.
Alarm bells started ringing in 2012. Criminal solicitor Robin Murray, founding partner of Kent firm Robin Murray & Co, wrote in the Gazette that the 'most serious and scandalous assault by police upon the rights of suspects' since the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was being practised.
He said at the time: 'It is seductively attractive to a person frightened of attending a police station to agree to an interview being conducted at home. At the police station, when cautioned before an interview, a suspect has to be told of his right to consult a lawyer, whether under arrest or if attending as a volunteer (code C paragraph 3.21).'
'Unscrupulous officers are exploiting a gap in the PACE codes because there is no corresponding obligation on the police to remind a suspect who is interviewed away from the police station. What then follows is a written account (no electronic recording safeguard) of the interview signed by the suspect who is then reported for summons.'
Fast forward nearly five years and criminal defence solicitors are being told that more people could be asked to attend police stations voluntarily following last month's introduction of a 28-day bail limit.
Ian Kelcey, senior partner at Bristol and London firm Kelcey & Hall, told a Law Society seminar: 'We should inform our clients to ask for our presence. It is disarming for a person to go into the police station and "pop in" for a chat. It makes it sound far less serious than if you’re being arrested.’
Richard Atkinson, managing partner at the Kent branch of national firm Tuckers, predicted a trend for voluntary interviews to occur elsewhere.
Atkinson said: 'It’s very offputting and wrong-footing of defendants if they’re allowed to sit in their front room for a chat with a friendly officer. Not that we will be rushing to homes, but legal advice is available in the home and is covered under the legal aid arrangements. Clients need to be aware they have all of their rights.’
Just for Kids Law co-founder Aika Stephenson, a solicitor at London firm Hodge Jones & Allen, told a Youth Justice Summit this month that the number of voluntary interviews is increasing - with a corresponding decline in availability of legal advice.
'I thought I was having a chat and now my child is in this legal process' was one parent's comment. Stephenson said: 'What parents [need to] know is that a voluntary interview is still an interview under caution and still has a far-reaching effect on [the] process.'
I conclude with Stephenson's plea to practitioners: 'We need to get the word out that [voluntary interviews] should not be at the expense of legal advice.'