Law Society raises concerns over covid-19 safety for lawyers in police stations
A request to revert to a more cautious police station protocol has ben refused by police
The Law Society has raised concerns over the safety and availability of criminal solicitors in courts, after calls to revert to remote police station advice were rejected by the police, despite a recent surge in cases and the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
In April 2020, a police station protocol was introduced to facilitate the provision of remote legal advice for suspects, with their consent.
In May 2021, changes were made to the protocol and it no longer applied in cases that involved suspects who were children or vulnerable adults. From October 2021, a new version of the protocol reinstated in-person attendance, except in limited circumstances.
The protocol requires a consensus of the relevant stakeholders for any amendments to be made.
Due to the surge in cases and spread of the Omicron variant, the Law Society and other signatories have sought to revert to the May version of the protocol; however, the request has been denied.
Law Society president, I. Stephanie Boyce, commented: “We strongly disagree with the police decision to oppose a reversion to remote provision of legal advice at the police station.
“It is crucial to balance the essential right to have one’s solicitors present in custody with the need to maintain safety for all. We have always made it clear that in-person advice is preferable, but the pendulum has once again swung given the rapid spread of the new Covid variant.
“Safety of our members and all others involved in the process must be prioritised. Firms will face a workforce crisis and the criminal justice system will be hit by further delays if solicitors are off sick or self-isolating because of continued attendance at the police station”.
Boyce highlighted: “There are exceptions under the existing protocol that our members can use, and we urge them to do so where appropriate. These include where the suspect is, or is believed to be, Covid-19 positive, or where the suspect’s named solicitor is self-isolating, and where there are health and safety concerns in relation to the police custody suite.
“We would remind solicitors of exemption three, which provides for remote advice to be given where, in consultation with all relevant parties, it is the belief of the custody officer that due to exceptional reasons it would not be practical, possible, or desirable for an in-person attendance by the legal advisor in that individual case to safely take place”.
Boyce also reminded employers they owe health and safety obligations to staff. “If they are asked to attend the police station but do not have any staff who are willing and able to attend, they should refuse to accept the case and hand it back to the duty solicitor call centre.”
Helen Littlewood, senior consultant solicitor for People Legal and RecLaw, commented: "Employers have a duty of care to all of their workers and people who visit their offices. This duty can include, but is by no way limited to, obligations to take practical measures to support the physical and mental health and wellbeing of their workers.
"Enclosed spaces where groups interact are high-risk locations for the spread of covid-19. Employer's are under a common law duty to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of their workers. Many jobs involve risk, but they must be managed as effectively as possible, taking into account the specific circumstances of the role.
"The Employment Rights Act 1996 offers protection from detriments, such as loss of pay or dismissal, if staff leave or refuse to attend a workplace for health and safety reasons, which includes places that are not under the control of the employer. Therefore, employers have a wide duty in respect of its duty of care towards its staff. This includes law firms. Law firms have a duty to its clients, suppliers, staff and anyone visiting/working at their offices to ensure that it is a safe place.
"The pandemic has added further steps which all companies must take into account and, as applicable, implement, including law firms. It is entirely reasonable, and the norm now, for staff and visitors to enquire, prior to entering an office/building, what health and safety measures a company has implemented in response to the pandemic".
The Law Society’s best practice guidance on member safety can be found here.