Covid-19 update: Concerns raised about access to justice during ‘lockdown’

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Covid-19 update: Concerns raised about access to justice during ‘lockdown’

DAILY UPDATE: Two more prisoners have died in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus. A 46-year-old at HMP Low Newton prisoner and a 59-year-old at HMP Littlehey prisoner died in hospital over the weekend. Both inmates had underlying health conditions.

They are reported to be the fourth and fifth deaths as a result of the pandemic. As reported on the Justice Gap yesterday, the deaths of two staff members at HMP Pentonville Prison were announced over the weekend.

Meanwhile the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe has asked member states of the Council of Europe to protect prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dunja Mijatovic called on countries to implement ‘humane and comprehensive’ crisis plans in line with the recommendations of WHO Europe to safeguard those who will leave prison in the coming months, those who will remain in detention, and prison staff.

The Commissioner highlighted that prisoners are particularly vulnerable to viruses due to their high-risk environment. There are already higher rates of infectious diseases among detainees, and cases of COVID-19 have already been reported in prisons throughout Europe. Hygiene practices and social distancing prove much more of a challenge in detention, especially when they are overcrowded and with poor conditions; many people in prison in Europe are housed in cramped multi-occupant cells, and health services are ‘unsatisfactory’.

Tensions in prisons across Europe have been rising since the onset of the pandemic, with restrictions sparking at times violent protests. Mijatovic ‘strongly urge[d] all member states to make use of all available alternatives to detention whenever possible and without discrimination’ – for example, temporary or early release, home detention, commutation of sentences, or suspending investigations.

Finally, prison lawyers have written to the justice secretary Robert Buckland over concerns about the rights of people in custody during the current ‘lockdown’ period. ‘Many prisons have stated that they cannot offer any video-link facilities for the time being,’ wrote Andrew Sperling of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group and Rikki Garg of the Association of Prison Lawyers. ‘Some prisons have video-link facilities but will not offer them for use for private consultations between prisoners and their legal representatives. Hardly any prisons have offered private telephone consultations. Many prisoners do not have phones in their cells or have limited credit with which to make essential calls.’

Whilst recognising the ‘extraordinary pressures’ that prison staff are under, they add: ‘We have to emphasise, however, that prisoners cannot have meaningful access to justice across all areas of law (civil and criminal) without access to private legal advice for reasonable periods.’ They argued that simply increasing inmates’ phone credit was not enough.