Solicitors urgently needing to take instructions from clients in custody face waiting several weeks for a video-link appointment, the Gazette has learned.
When Sonya O’Brien, a partner at Oldham firm Norcross Lees & Riches, requested an urgent video-link visit to see her client ahead of a bail application, the prison initially told her no slots were available for at least one month.
The earliest prison video-link appointment that Kerry Hudson, director at London firm Bullivant Law, could get to see her client was two weeks after the trial date.
The trial was listed for Monday but Hudson said the court was unable to produce her client. She had spent three hours on the Sunday creating a chronology of events ‘ready to oppose and resist pressure from the court to proceed to a trial that day if our client had been produced. And it was necessary as the bench (rightly) scrutinised the reasons for the ineffective trial’.
She added: ‘No doubt without my efforts, the blame would have been centred on the defence not running around like maniacs trying to get the rest of the system to work.’
The Law Society’s crime practitioners Covid-19 working group has written to HM Prison & Probation Service for an update on the possible return of face-to-face legal visits and the proper use of cloud video platform capacity to facilitate remote visits.
The group says the lengthy wait means it is not possible to take instructions from clients sent to the Crown court following a first appearance at the magistrates’ court and prior to their plea and trial preparation hearing.
Law Society president Simon Davis said: ‘It cannot be right that a court is in a position to give someone in custody an expedited trial date, but they cannot take advantage of that opportunity because their solicitor cannot take instructions.
‘Efforts must be redoubled to facilitate contact between lawyers and their clients in custody through prison video links, and to reintroduce face-to-face prison visits as soon as it is safe. This could include Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service making more staff available to aid the movement of inmates around the prison to video/visit rooms as well as making more remote technology available to allow video conferencing.’
A prison service spokesperson said: ‘The suspension of face-to-face meetings undoubtedly saved lives and we worked hard to ensure legal advice continued remotely. That includes providing more than 1,000 extra telephone handsets, hundreds of video meeting rooms and we are increasing capacity even further.’
The Ministry of Justice said it is taking steps to increase video-conferencing availability at some locations through increased operating hours during the weekdays, and Saturdays in some cases. It is taking ‘urgent action’ to increase the physical number of video-link outlets at sites where capacity is limited and to support specialist courts.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.