Police forces are being told they have a duty to ensure they take all reasonable and practical steps to protect the health and safety of criminal defence solicitors during the coronavirus outbreak in a national protocol agreed between police and legal chiefs.
The interview protocol, published last night, was agreed between the Crown Prosecution Service, National Police Chiefs’ Council, Law Society, Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association.
It states that police will have their own guidance about the steps they take to ensure the health and safety of officers, and the suspects and witnesses they deal with. ‘The police have a duty to ensure that all reasonably practicable steps are taken to protect visitors to the custody suite, including legal representatives, from infection with Covid-19. This includes issuing personal protection equipment (PPE) where appropriate, and instructions for its use, even where the detainee is not symptomatic.’
Legal advice for suspects should take place whenever possible over the telephone and by video link.
The protocol will be widely welcomed by the criminal defence community, who have highlighted different approaches from the police across the country.
Midlands firm Eden Legal Services shared details of its ‘terrible experience’ as the duty solicitor on Twitter this week. Stephanie Brownlees, director, told the Gazette that most of the cases the firm dealt with ran smoothly and ‘police officers were fantastic in facilitating remote access’. However, in one case, a custody sergeant ‘snatched’ the phone from the client during a telephone consultation and said the solicitor had to attend in person. In another matter, she said police interviewed a client who did not receive telephone advice.
Brownlees has since spoken to the custody inspector, who she says is ‘fully supportive of remote attendances where it is in the interests of all parties’ and would be speaking to the custody sergeant involved in the two cases where the firm was blocked.
Northumbria Police was praised for writing to lawyers highlighting its measures to safeguard legal representatives. Chief inspector Phil McConville told the Gazette: ‘The efforts we are making are a work in progress as opposed to a fait accompli. We are learning as we go and understand that there is always room for improvement. We genuinely place the safety and welfare of all visitors in our custody suites as our top priority - and more than ever in these unprecedented circumstances which are difficult for all of us.
‘I understand the worries and concerns that many legal representatives have in relation to Covid-19, just as our own staff do. We want to ensure the best possible professional working relationship with our local defence solicitor firms, and I would reiterate that if any legal representatives have any concerns regarding the welfare or health and safety of anyone in our custody suites, please raise them with the custody sergeant or custody inspector and we will endeavour to address them.’
*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.