Criminal defence solicitors in Wales are being forced to attend court in person while prosecutors are allowed to appear via video link, firms have claimed in an open letter to HM Courts & Tribunals Service.
A group of 12 firms based in South Wales alleges that applications for defence advocates to appear remotely via the Cloud Video Platform (CVP) are being routinely refused. In contrast, the Crown Prosecution Service is ‘generally appearing remotely and it would seem this is treated as a given, without individual applications having to be made’.
‘We would submit that the reasons given in refusing permission do not, in our view, appear in accordance with the guidance provided by the chief magistrate and deputy,’ the letter states.
While logistical issues meant defence solicitors needed to attend court in person at the start of lockdown in order to speak to clients, the Gazette understands this is no longer the case in many areas.
‘The goodwill that we had and used to ensure the court could continue to operate has unfortunately been extinguished as a result of the above. If we cannot reach a mutual agreement on the above, we are resolved that we will no longer attend these courts,’ the open letter concludes.
A decision was made at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to close local courts in Wales and to prioritise regional hubs. However, defence solicitors claim they now have to travel up to 30 miles each way and that the Legal Aid Agency does not automatically pay for travel.
Scott Bowen, director at HPJV Solicitors in Newport, said the court service is putting unnecessary pressure on already struggling firms.
‘We have staff on the furlough scheme which is coming an end, the tax breaks are coming to an end - all the pressures are piling on defence firms. So we are trying to be as efficient as possible. This is a way of allowing us to do that, but the court is simply saying it’s “not in the interests of justice”.'
‘We have a shortage of defence practitioners. This is going to tip a lot of people over the edge. And that will have an impact on access to justice,' Bowen added. The solicitor has lodged a formal complaint with HMCTS.
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