A police force has been praised for its proactive approach to protecting the health and safety of duty solicitors and detainees during the coronavirus outbreak.
Northumbria Police’s chief inspector Phil McConville, of Forth Banks Police Station, wrote to lawyers over the weekend that he had become aware of concerns raised nationally over the health, safety and welfare of legal representatives who are attending police stations during the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said: ‘I am writing to you today in order to make you aware of what measures Northumbria Police have put in place to safeguard legal representatives, and indeed, all visitors to our custody suites so you can be assured that the safety of all persons in our custody suites is our number one priority.’
Once lawyers arrive at a police station, they will be asked screening questions regarding contact with anyone who may have been exposed to Covid-19 or if they are experiencing symptoms. They will be admitted to the custody suite as quickly as possible. Hand sanitiser will be displayed in prominent places, though McConville says the force is attempting to source wall-mounted sanitiser dispensers but are experiencing delays with suppliers. Surfaces and equipment are regularly wiped down but legal representatives should ask for cleaning wipes if they need one.
Lawyers will be informed if any Covid-19 precautions are being taken in respect of their client. Healthcare professionals are present in all operations custody suites 24 hours a day. Data ports have been installed in some of the interview rooms at Forth Banks and Middle Engine Lane police stations so lawyers can remotely dial in to conduct a phone interview and privately consult clients.
The force is working on ‘IT solutions’ to enable hardwired internet connections to allow ‘live link’ video interviews. If a traditional interview has to be done, interview rooms will be reconfigured to allow the minimum two-metre social distance requirement and lawyers will be given the same personal protective equipment as interviewing officers.
Health and safety concerns should be raised with the custody sergeant and escalated to the duty custody inspector if the matter is not resolved.
McConville said: ‘I hope that the information above provides reassurance to legal representatives who attend our custody suites that we take their welfare, and that of our detainees, visitors and staff extremely seriously.’
Lawyers have been quick to praise the letter. Janice Hall, of Newcastle and South Shields firm David Gray Solicitors, said: ‘Well done to Northumbria Police. Credit where it is due for clear guidance and additional technology at short notice.’
Firms have been taking health and safety into their own hands. Mander Cruickshank and ZMS agreed a joint approach for duty solicitor cover at Leicester Magistrates’ Court last week. Dozens of firms have signed up to a protocol drafted by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association and Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association.
The Law Society is talking daily to HM Courts & Tribunals Service and the Home Office about police station and prison concerns ‘to keep the pressure on to ensure consistent compliance with best practice’. It has also obtained confirmation from the Legal Aid Agency that a pandemic-caused failure to comply with certain contract provisions will not result in sanctions.
The National Police Chiefs Council is expected to publish national guidance soon. The senior presiding judge, HM Courts & Tribunals Service and the CPS have issued a ‘coronavirus crisis protocol’ for effectively handling custody time limit cases in the magistrates’ and Crown 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.