A London criminal defence firm has announced that it is ending all face-to-face contact to protect staff and clients.
As fears continue to grow about the spread of coronavirus, north London firm Powell Spencer & Partners says it will not be attending police stations, magistrates’ or Crown courts, and prisons. Agents and counsel will not be asked to attend.
Senior partner Greg Powell, a former president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA), said on Twitter that it was ‘ridiculous’ that the criminal justice system is not shut down. ‘Serious custody cases can be centralised and remote working arranged. [We] decided we could not wait any longer for the MoJ,’ he said.
Powell told the Gazette: 'I would have expected the Legal Aid Agency to withdraw us from face-to-face contact but they have not. All they have done is said if you do not want to do your duty slot you can give it to someone else. That's madness. The irony is we are micro-managed by the LAA in that we have to have a risk assessment. There's never been a greater risk assessment than this. They themselves seem to be utterly failing to conduct their own risk assessment in the situation we find ourselves in.'
The firm’s decision has been widely praised and other firms could follow suit.
The Ministry of Justice says its Legal Aid Agency guidance, published last Friday, is under constant review and could be updated later today or tomorrow. At present, the guidance states that the agency will take a ‘proportionate approach’ to duty solicitor compliance in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
In an update today, the lord chief justice announced that magistrates’ courts will need to continue to deal with urgent work, in accordance with guidance given by the judiciary to judges and staff. All hearings that can lawfully take place remotely should do so if the facilities exist.
However, one criminal defence solicitor told the Gazette that the lord chief justice's announcement has caused 'absolute chaos' this morning in the magistrates' courts with no one knowing what to do. Some courts have reportedly shut to review their social distancing policities while it's busines as usual at others. Social distancing is reportedly not happening at Croydon Magistrates' Court this morning, where a woman with a sleeping baby was sitting in the waiting room with around 20 other people.
The LCCSA has issued a suggested emergency five-point protocol ‘to ensure criminal defence lawyers do not contribute to the strain on the NHS’.
- Non-urgent criminal cases should be delayed for two months.
- Urgent hearings should be temporarily conducted by video or telephone. Arrests should be reserved for essential cases only, with an increased use of street bail.
- Voluntary interviews and postal requisitions should be delayed. If a suspect must be detained, solicitors and appropriate adults should be permitted to attend via video-link.
- If solicitors have to attend court or police station, a Covid-19 risk assessment of the defendant should be carried out.
- Facilities should be deep-cleaned and hand sanitiser made widely available.
*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.