The Impact of COVID-19 on Police Station Interviews

An article published in the Law Gazette by DPP Law Managing Director, Stuart Nolan, and Richard Atkinson (respectively Chair and Member of the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee) looks at the impact of Covid-19 on police station interviews and considers the future of free legal advice at the police station.

The key points in the article are summarised below.

Police station advice

Providing 24/7 legal advice for suspects at police stations is a vital protection for anyone who is interviewed under caution or being questioned as a suspect. It is one of the safeguards introduced by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) to remedy unprofessional police practice. Since then, the right to have your solicitor present in custody is considered essential in normal circumstances.

Covid-19 impact

As a result of the risk to police station staff and duty solicitors alike, The Law Society the Crown Prosecution Service and National Police Chiefs’ Council, introduced the police station protocol – offering legal advice to suspects remotely, so long as the suspect consents.

This was introduced as a temporary measure to those attending a police station and being interviewed under caution. However, there are concerns about whether remote legal representation does effectively protect suspects’ rights.

As of 17 May 2021, the protocol no longer applies in cases involving suspects who are children or vulnerable adults.

Remote legal advice – the concerns

In The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021, the government seems to be paving the way for more permanent remote justice in a number of other contexts.

In our view, it is imperative to revert to in-person legal advice in the police station as soon as possible as the pandemic recedes.

Face-to-face legal advice is vital for a number of reasons:

  • Ensuring that clients understand the situation they are in, the options available to them, and the implications of the decisions they take.
  • Providing free legal advice from a criminal defence solicitor at a critical stage of proceedings.
  • Helping to promote high standards of police behaviour.

If the temporary pandemic protocol becomes permanent, it could lead to a centralised call-centre provision of legal advice for those being questioned at a police station.

This will lead to many potential issues for suspects, the criminal defence profession and police alike, including:

  • Inadequate representation for suspects on arrival at the police station.
  • Suspects may be ineffectively protected from inappropriate pressure or misconduct by police officers.
  • Police are at greater risk from false allegations of oppressive behaviour.
  • Defence and prosecution cases are potentially affected by alleged lack of oversight in the police station.

Keeping interviews safe

In order to return to face-to-face interviews, duty solicitors offering police station advice must be kept safe from the risks of the pandemic.

Duty solicitors can help to shine a spotlight on police stations with particular Covid-19 safety issues by:

  • Reporting police stations that fail to provide personal protective equipment and social distancing to the police locally or to the Practice Advice Service.
  • Requesting risk assessments of police stations.
  • Declining a case if it does not feel safe to attend and where remote advice is not an option.

A suspects’ right to free face-to-face legal advice is so important that solicitors must take the necessary steps to enable it to happen, even if an individual solicitor does not feel able to offer it themselves.

We believe permanent adoption of remote police station legal advice would have a detrimental effect on solicitors, their clients and the police, even if it can, at first glance, appear more efficient and convenient.