The safety and availability of criminal defence solicitors is being put at risk after calls to revert to remote police station advice were rejected by the police despite the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the Law Society has warned.
A police station protocol was introduced in April 2020 in response to the pandemic, allowing for remote advice to be provided to suspects with their consent.
From 17 May 2021, the protocol no longer applied in cases involving suspects who are children or vulnerable adults requiring an appropriate adult, then from 4 October, a new version of the protocol saw a return to in-person attendance except for in limited circumstances.
Given the spread of the new Covid variant, the Law Society and other signatories to the protocol last week sought to revert to the 17 May version, but the request was denied.
'We strongly disagree with the police decision to oppose a reversion to remote provision of legal advice at the police station,' Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said today. 'It is crucial to balance the essential right to have one’s solicitors present in custody with the need to maintain safety for all. We have always made it clear that in-person advice is preferable, but the pendulum has once again swung given the rapid spread of the new Covid variant.
'Safety of our members and all others involved in the process must be prioritised. Firms will face a workforce crisis and the criminal justice system will be hit by further delays if solicitors are off sick or self-isolating because of continued attendance at the police station.'
Boyce urged members to make use of existing exceptions to the protocol where appropriate. These include where the suspect is, or is believed to be, Covid-19 positive, or where the suspect’s named solicitor is self-isolating, and where there are health and safety concerns in relation to the police custody suite.
'We would remind solicitors of exemption three, which provides for remote advice to be given where, in consultation with all relevant parties, it is the belief of the custody officer that due to exceptional reasons it would not be practical, possible, or desirable for an in-person attendance by the legal advisor in that individual case to safely take place,' she said.
Firms are also reminded that they have health and safety obligations to their staff. 'If they are asked to attend the police station but do not have any staff who are willing and able to attend, they should refuse to accept the case and hand it back to the duty solicitor call centre,' Boyce said.