Press release: New research project examines impact of remote interviews in UK police stations

Article by Fair Trials

Fair Trials is part of a new research project that will look at whether police interviews can be fair and effective when carried out by video or phone rather than in person. In particular, the project will examine the impact of people receiving legal assistance in police custody via phone and videolink rather than in person.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, police interviews and other interactions in the UK were carried out in person and usually in a police station. Legal assistance (provided free of charge to suspects in police custody) was normally provided in person, with a legal expert meeting their client in person before a police interview and sitting alongside them during the interview. Since March 2020, many lawyers have provided support to suspects by phone or video. To date, there has been limited research on the impact of this.

Now a team of academics, national and international police organisations and criminal justice groups have been funded to explore this issue in more detail over the next 18 months, in a project entitled Supporting the interviewing and legal representation of crime victims and suspects using digital communications methods: Is it remotely possible?

Their findings will highlight the impact of remote communication on the fairness and effectiveness of police interviews during the current pandemic and inform lasting changes, both to the way police undertake interviews and the legal system.

Speaking about the importance of ensuring remote interviews provide proper access to justice, Jago Russell, Chief Executive of Fair Trials, said: Access to an effective lawyer in the police station is a crucial safeguard, protecting the rights of arrested people at a time when they are isolated and vulnerable to abuse and coercion.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, most lawyers have decided to stay away from police stations, preferring to advise their clients by phone or video. We urgently need to understand what impact this shift is having on suspects and on the fairness and reliability of the evidence being given to police.

The evidence collected during the research will be used to draw up recommendations for any future proposed use of remote interviews, including during future pandemic situations, ensuring standardisation across the global policing and law enforcement community.

Notes to Editor

The project has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovations rapid response to Covid-19.

It will be led by Professor Gavin Oxburgh and Dr Nicci MacLeod of Northumbria University, working alongside Fair Trials and academics from De Montfort University, Sunderland University.

Since March, Fair Trials has been monitoring the impact of the pandemic on criminal justice. As part of our COVID-19 Justice Project, we created a series of templates to help lawyers address threats to the right to access a lawyer.

Over a period of 2 weeks in May 2020, Fair Trials conducted a survey of individuals at the frontline of the criminal justice system, including defence solicitors, barristers, accredited legal representatives, judges, magistrates, police officers, CPS staff, and appropriate adults.

Our report, Justice under Lockdown, showed that lawyers believe suspects in police custody are getting poorer quality legal advice and assistance, as solicitors access to their clients and their attendance at police interviews are severely restricted.