Lawyers only get 15 minutes to talk to their clients via video link before a court hearing, the Gazette has learned - contradicting what the chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service told MPs this week.
Susan Acland-Hood and justice secretary David Gauke were questioned about video hearings by the House of Commons justice select committee on Tuesday.
Bob Neill, the committee's chair, said: 'Online video hearings, preliminary hearings, can be very sensible, saves people being brought from remand and prisons prefer that, but you've got a 15-minute slot for the defence lawyers to advise the clients beforehand, we're told. Have any of you ever tried to advise a client you may have never met before, in 15 minutes, on what the merits of their plea might be, or what the adequacy or otherwise of the brief that you've got from your solicitor, who may not be very well remunerated on legal aid, is?'
Neill said the 15-minute slot was a 'technical constraint which is wholly removed from the reality of criminal practice'.
Acland-Hood told the committee that HMCTS did not have a 'standard operating procedure that says it's a 15-minute slot and it will vary a lot in different places'.
However, this contradicts what practitioners are experiencing.
Jon Black, a partner at London criminal defence specialist BSB Solicitors, and president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association, said: 'Every time we have a video link hearing we are provided with a pre-court and post-court conference slot. Each slot is scheduled for 15 minutes. Once the 15 minutes is up we are called into court and the defendant is ushered into the prison "courtroom". This is not enough time to take meaningful instructions.'
Commenting on current technical 'constraints', Acland-Hood said the justice video service used in criminal courts is a 'closed loop system'.
The HMCTS chief said: 'From a court video link you can only talk to another court, police station or prison. You can't talk to anywhere else. That means we have constrained access to both ends of the link. As the solicitor, you can only appear from a designated booth.'
HMCTS has begun testing the ability for lawyers 'to link into those end points from any machine that can do video', Acland-Hood said. 'That wouldn't be appropriate in my view for appearing in trial but can be appropriate if you're giving advice. And if there's a trade-off between having a longer and more flexible slot to be able to give advice, and being in front of a bigger fixed end point, I think that's worth us testing.'