Fair Trials welcomes an end to remote legal assistance for children and vulnerable adults

Article by Fair Trials

From May 17, lawyers in England and Wales will once again give in person advice to children and vulnerable adults at police stations. Fair Trials welcomes this decision and appreciates the steps being taken to overcome any remaining practical challenges posed by Covid-19 so that lawyers can resume their work in person.

People detained in custody or otherwise interviewed by police have a right to free legal advice and assistance, to safeguard legal rights and ensure fair questioning. Children and mentally vulnerable adults are particularly at risk due to their specific needs often relating to communication. Safeguards to ensure their fair treatment include having an appropriate adult and legal assistance (if requested) always being delivered in person.

However, as the pandemic struck in March 2020, solicitors raised concerns about the Covid-19 safety of police custody, leading to anxieties that essential interviews with solicitors present at the police station would not proceed. A protocol was agreed between prosecutors, police and defence solicitors to mitigate health risks. It discouraged unnecessary interviews in detention and, contrary to established laws and procedures, supported the temporary remote delivery of legal representation in interview.

Our research report with the National Appropriate Adult Network and Transform Justice entitled ‘Not remotely fair?‘, provided an insight into the implementation of the protocol and the effect of remote legal advice, particularly on children and mentally vulnerable people. An online survey was carried out with trained appropriate adults, many of whom continued to attend police custody throughout the pandemic. 315 responses were received between September and November 2020, from AAs active in all police force areas in England and Wales.

As illustrated in the report, remote legal advice not only impacts those in police custody, but it also places pressure on those working in the criminal justice system, therefore the end of this emergency measure cannot come soon enough.

We do however, appreciate the reasons for moving to remote advice as an exceptional response to the pandemic, and would like to thank the organisations who put together the emergency protocol. We would also like to thank those many criminal justice professions (including many lawyers) that continued to attend police stations in person during the pandemic regardless of the health risks. We look forward to more lawyers being back in police stations as we emerge from lockdown.

Click here to read our letter to the protocol signatories.

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