Solicitors are being asked to report problems they encounter using digital devices such as smartphones in the criminal justice system in the run-up to the introduction of ‘paperless’ courts.
The Legal Aid Agency has published guidance on how solicitors should respond if they are prevented from taking laptops, tablets or mobile phones into areas such as custody suites.
The Ministry of Justice said the guidance was issued in response to requests from practitioner groups. Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said that solicitors had met ‘significant obstacles’ in using devices such as laptops with built-in webcams. Access to power points in court has also been a problem.
‘The prison service has largely ignored the guidance and we have lobbied to ensure the policy is communicated,’ Black said. ‘It is time that they understood that we are a profession bound by codes of conduct, and a key component to providing access to justice is to enable us to prepare our clients’ cases.’
Black had heard no reports of legal visitors using electronic devices for inappropriate purposes in prison establishments.
He said solicitors on duty should not be deprived of their phones, ‘as they will inevitably not be able to accept cases or carry out other work while being kept waiting (as they regularly are) by police’.
He added: ‘It must be made clear to staff in the court cells that the electronic legal aid form can be completed on a mobile device and, therefore, as long as it is in “airplane mode” during the course of the visit, there is no reason to obstruct their use or require that lawyers surrender them.’
Guidance states that criminal defence practitioners are allowed to bring IT equipment into court that is necessary to consult with clients. Mobile phones can be used ‘in the wider courthouse’ but must be switched off and out of sight in the courtroom itself.
Solicitors are asked to notify problems to the Criminal Justice System efficiency programme (CJSEfficiency@cps.gsi.gov.uk).
Mobile phones and laptops can be taken into police custody suites, but may have to be surrendered to the custody officer if they believe it necessary to prevent ‘unauthorised communications’. Problems should be put in writing and sent to the local chief constable.