A decision to end emergency measures allowing for remote police station advice ‘cannot come soon enough’, according to three legal charities who warn of the risks of miscarriages of justice as a result of temporary arrangements introduced as a response to COVID-19 concerns. In April last year, organisations representing solicitors, prosecutors and the police signed up to an agreement known as the Joint Interim Interview Protocol allowing interviews to continue with duty solicitors advising remotely except in serious cases or where a suspect hasn’t consented.
Fair Trials, Transform Justice and the National Appropriate Adult Network welcome a new decision to end the temporary provisions from May 15 for children and mentally vulnerable adults and for all suspects when legal limits on social contact end by no later than June 21. ‘People who have been arrested and detained by police need effective in-person access to legal advice to ensure they understand their rights and are treated fairly,’ commented Jago Russell, chief executive of Fair Trials. ‘It’s a huge relief that lawyers will soon be back in police stations, giving children and vulnerable adults this support. We look forward to the return of lawyers for all suspects to make sure that this important legal right is protected.’
A report by the three groups published in February (Not remotely fair? Access to a lawyer in the police station during the Covid-19 pandemic, reported here) argued that legal advice delivered via video link was a threat to vulnerable people’s rights. It revealed that legal representation had been provided remotely to children and vulnerable adults in half (51%) of the 4,700 police station interviews attended by survey respondents between September 1 and November 17 last year.
More than half of 315 appropriate adults who responded to the survey felt that that remote advice had ‘a negative impact’ on the ability of suspects to participate effectively in the process. According to the report, vulnerable suspects accused of the most serious crimes including murder and rape were being denied face-to-face legal advice when being interviewed in the police station. It also reported that some solicitors were refusing to drop cases to allow a suspect to find a lawyer who was prepared to attend.
In the new letter to the CPS, National Police Chiefs’ Council, Law Society and groups representing defence lawyers, the three groups highlighted ‘grave concerns’ about the fact that suspects have not been able to exercise their right to free legal advice in person in the police station during the pandemic’. ‘The negative impact on communication, and consequently effective participation and representation, have been exacerbated by poor internet connections, wide use of audio-only technology, and facilities unable to ensure confidentiality between clients and solicitors,’ it continued. ‘We are also concerned about the longer-term risks of miscarriages of justice for people who were unable to understand and exercise their rights without a lawyer present in person, including because their vulnerabilities were not identified.’
Concerns about the protocol were highlighted in a recent report by the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire Rescue Services which recorded that the police faced ‘significant problems arising from the use of virtual legal advice and representation for detainees rather than solicitors attending in person’. ‘It has cost, capacity and demand implications,’ the report stated. ‘In addition, forces’ lack of information to show how detainees have received their legal rights while in custody may have implications for the criminal justice system.’
The three legal charities also note that appropriate adults who continued to attend in person throughout the pandemic have had to take on ‘additional responsibilities where lawyers have advised remotely and we recognise that lawyers have found it harder to build relationships of trust with their clients, to intervene during interviews and to ensure their clients are able to understand and exercise their rights’.
‘For all of these reasons, the end of this emergency measure cannot come soon enough,’ the groups continue.