Coronavirus: “By continuing to work I may kill one or both of the people most dear to me”

This is an email sent to me by a police station lawyer, who asked not to be named, who is facing the dilemma of needing to work and earn money during the coronavirus outbreak, while knowing that in doing so she is putting herself and her son at risk 

I am 59 years old, I suffer from pre-hypertension which is mostly controlled with medication.  I care for an adult son who suffers from chronic asthma and is currently unable to work because of it.

I am the only breadwinner in my household. I own my own modest home, but on mortgage. I have no surviving parents, or older relatives, no trust fund, no inheritance (my parents were both in full time care at the end of their lives due to dementia. Their property and lifetime’s savings paid for that care, then my little savings). I care for a friend and neighbour who has no near relatives and has had a double lung transplant.

I am a police station rep. I work in a criminal defence solicitor’s office 9-5.30, a minimum of 3 days a week. I am then on call 2-3 days a week. Being on call means a shift of 24 hrs from 9am to 9am. During that time I am contacted by the Defence Solicitors Call Centre to alert me to clients who have been arrested, detained, and have asked for legal representation. I then liaise with the police and attend various police stations in my area to advise the clients and represent them in interview.

I frequently work all night and then go straight into the office for another full day.  About once a month I can work 48hrs straight. I have done 72, but that is my limit!  The police work in shifts, so interviews can take place at any time, day or night.

I am by no means unique. Every criminal law Duty Solicitor and Police Station Rep in the UK has a similar work pattern. The profession is on its knees. Most of our clients receive public funding. The rate paid to lawyers via public funding has been slashed and slashed again.

The firm in which I work is first class. Dedicated, professional, committed and supportive of staff.  They survive on the barest of margins. There is no wriggle room and hasn’t been for years.  Three other criminal law firms in my area have closed since Nov 19. Two others have moved from crime to general practice since the New Year.

Without attending clients in custody my firm would generate very little work. However, the current pandemic is putting our lives and our families lives at risk. Many of the clients we represent are vulnerable, mentally or through drink and/or drugs. Many are homeless. Any form of hygiene is not even a consideration in their chaotic lives. Their immune systems will be compromised as a result of their lifestyles. Many 25 year olds could easily pass for 50. The chances of them catching the virus is, I imagine, very high.

We are often locked in a less than clean, windowless consultation room with our clients. We are in very close proximity, sometimes for hours. Often clients cannot wash or change as they are required to provide samples and must receive legal advice beforehand. They are often literally basted in their own, and sometimes other’s, bodily fluids. Custody centres and cells are never the most fragrant or clean areas. They are not built for comfort!  Some are far worse than others and some are old and dilapidated, making them even harder to keep clean. The police officers and custody staff are equally at risk of course.

I am not looking for sympathy. This is the job I chose and I love it, despite the many challenges. I have never met a criminal defence lawyer who was not completely devoted to their clients and their work, and believe me, it is not for financial reward.

So the dilemma I and many others face is, do we self isolate and protect ourselves and our families from the potential risk of infection from our workplace, or do we continue to represent our clients in their need, and therefore also ensure that we have a firm and a job to return to when, and if, the nightmare ends?

As a rep I am not bound by the rules to which Duty Solicitors must adhere. They must complete a certain number of advocacy hours per week in order to even continue practising. That rule has not been relaxed.

To date there has been no guidance from the Law Society, The Legal Aid Agency or The Ministry of Justice about working practice and how we should protect ourselves, apart from washing hands.  My firm provides hand sanitiser, wipes, antibacterial soap, etc, which is more than most. I sanitise everything, myself, my equipment, anything that has been touched by hand between each client, during each room change and after leaving … but is it really enough?

There have been three scares at two custody suites in my area over the last fortnight, where a detained person has presented with possible symptoms of COVID 19. We have never been updated as to outcome.  To provide that information would apparently breach confidentiality?!  The building is simply re-opened and we carry on. To what end?  With what consequence?

I need to support my household and provide a roof, heat, light, food. I need to care for my son and I choose to care for my neighbour. By continuing to work I may kill one or both of the people most dear to me, or die myself and leave them without support.

Worrying and dangerous times.

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