Lawyers refusing to attend police stations over coronavirus fears

Solicitors are refusing to attend police stations because of ‘cavalier’ attitudes towards coronavirus health safeguards.

A blistering attack on the police saw officers accused of ‘shocking’ behaviour.

Ian Kelcey, the co-chairman of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, has called on the Home Office to introduce a national protocol for custody suites where arrested people are detained and labelled police guidance as useful a ‘chocolate fireguard’.

He added that clarity was also needed in England and Wales’s magistrates’ courts, branding current arrangements a ‘muddle’. His comments came as some crown courts closed their doors today amid Covid-19 crisis.

In a statement on Monday, Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett announced no new jury trials should take place at crown courts and any ongoing cases should be paused for stringent safety measures to be put in place.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents criminal barristers in England and Wales, said it would support members who choose not to attend court.

On Tuesday, Nottingham and Maidstone crown courts shut their doors.

A senior lawyer who turned up at Maidstone but declined to be named said: ‘None of the judges turned up due to concerns about their own safety despite cases being listed for today.

‘Court now closed until further notice – you couldn’t script it.’

Mr Kelcey, a senior partner at Bristol-based criminal law firm Kelcey and Hall, said a joined-up approach was needed between police stations, courts and prisons.

He added: ‘Currently, with police stations, we take the view the police are taking a very lax attitude to all of this.

‘We had a client arrested, coughing, the police said he’s got some symptoms, and didn’t even refer him to a health care professional.

‘We said, “OK, we’re refusing to attend”, and the end result was the client was released, no further action.

‘In Kent, a colleague was on call over the weekend, someone was arrested, who thought he had Covid-19.

‘The police said, “No they haven’t, but tell you what, when you turn up we have masks and gloves for you”, then when he arrived the police were wearing full hazmat suits.

‘It is just shocking, the way police are behaving.’

He described National Police Chiefs’ Council guidance as ‘as much use as a chocolate fireguard’, adding different forces were using different protocols.

At least one force is reportedly asking solicitors to bring their own hand gel, gloves and masks, while at Staffordshire Police’s Cannock custody block, lawyers have been met at the doors by staff with hand sanitiser.

West Midlands Police has designated one of its four custody suites, Wolverhampton, to hold detainees suspected or confirmed to have Covid-19.

Mr Kelcey said police interviews could be done safely and remotely using conference call phones.

‘We can do interviews remotely, get disclosure, speak to the client and be present in interview by dialling in over the phone,’ he said.

‘It’s not rocket science – every force has a conference call phone.

‘The trouble with the police attitude is, “We’ve arrested someone, we’ve got a problem, and don’t want to keep them here”.

‘There’s a certain hypocrisy to all this.

‘There’s a very cavalier attitude and the police have been cavalier about the health of detainees, particularly mental health, for many years, in my experience.’

He said the profession should stand together and not attend police stations, adding that his firm and others in Bristol are refusing to go.

‘I think now we need a national protocol from the Home Office.’

He also described magistrates courts as ‘zoos’ in the current climate, adding that some courts have no soap.

The Ministry of Justice and the Police Federation have been approached for comment.

Simon Davis, Law Society president, said: ‘The courts have now directed that all matters that can be dealt with remotely must be.

‘There will only be extremely limited exceptions, where a matter is urgent and justice cannot be done without a face-to-face hearing.

‘In these limited circumstances, and so long as the court is taking all necessary measures to ensure good hygiene, appropriate distancing and following all other relevant guidance to minimise risk, it should be safe for our members to attend court.’

‘If appropriate hygiene and safety measures are not in place, it would be reasonable to decline to attend.’

A Home Office spokeswoman said: ‘We are working incredibly closely with the National Police Chiefs’ Council who have sent guidance to all police forces on how to safely manage their custody suites.