HARROW CROWN COURT – COVID 19 – SOCIAL DISTANCING

We are endeavouring to put in place measures to ensure that the requirement for attendance at court is minimised for all. There is significant scope to do this under our present powers.

The Coronavirus Bill contains extensive new powers to hold remote hearings. When the Bill is passed, we will update this guidance and will endeavour to review all cases and make live link directions decisions where appropriate.

Where attendance at court is unavoidable, a distance of 6ft/2m from others should be maintained in accordance with government guidance.

We urge those who are vulnerable to contact us in advance of any hearing listed for personal attendance to discuss an alternative to attendance at court.

We will try the measures set out below:

  1. We will hold as many pre-trial hearings as possible by telephone or by Skype. We have 3 spider phones and we are still new to Skype. ( Our focus for now is on the spider phones whilst we work to achieve Skype).
  2. We will review all forthcoming pre-trial hearings and assess them for suitability for hearing by telephone or video link.
  3. Pre-trial hearings which are potentially suitable for remote hearing (audio or video) include:
  • PTPHs
  • FCMHs
  • Compliance hearings
  • Preparatory hearings
  • Applications to stay for abuse of process
  • Applications for joinder or severance
  • Applications for indication of sentence
  • Intermediary applications
  • Ground rules hearings
  • Uncontested bail applications
  • Defendant’s contested bail applications: if D has waived his right to attend, or if D attends via video link, or if D was present when bail was previously withheld and has been in custody continuously since then
  • Prosecution contested appeal against grant of bail: if D has waived his right to attend, or if D attends via video link, or if the court is satisfied that it would be just to proceed even though the defendant is absent
  • Custody time limit extension applications: if D has waived his right to attend, or if D attends via video link, or if the court is satisfied that it would be just to proceed even though the defendant is absent
  1. Pre-trial hearings held by telephone or Skype will be administered by a clerk, in a courtroom, and will be recorded on DARTS or on the Spiderphone system. Judges will not necessarily be present in Court.
  2. Where a direction is made for a pre-trial hearing to be heard by telephone or video link we will ensure that dial-in or Skype details are at the top of the widely shared comments section of the DCS. Please use these details and ensure that you attend the hearing promptly.
  3. Advocates should make a special effort to liaise in advance to cover the issues that would otherwise have been addressed at court before the hearing and to ensure that any documents are uploaded in good time. The list will need to run to time.
  4. Hearings will continue to operate in “open court” and public access will be available. The following guidance does not prohibit anyone from attending a hearing in person.
  5. Advocates who are in the building may come into a courtroom for a telephone hearing, rather than dialing-in, but are encouraged not to do so unless it is necessary.
  6. Advocates who are in the building may come into a courtroom for a Skype hearing (although they will need their own Skype facility), but are encouraged not to do so unless it is necessary.
  7. There may be circumstances where a defence advocate needs to be in the courtroom with the defendant for a pre-trial hearing. If others are attending the hearing by Skype hearing, the advocate should make their own Skype facility available, as the Court’s facility will be used for the defendant.
  8. We will review all forthcoming sentencing hearings for defendants in custody and assess whether it would be appropriate for D to attend via video link. In the event that the Court decides that D’s attendance via PVL is appropriate, we will endeavour to secure a PVL slot rather than having D brought to court, to reduce the exposure of our staff and of the prison population, even if this necessitates an adjournment. At present, all other participants will be required to attend in person.
  9. Trials at Harrow are currently suspended. We will identify the trials that we are going to list first when jury service resumes, and list them for a PTR to consider giving further directions in relation to participation by live link.
  10. We will review all other listed hearings, including appeals and sentencing hearings for defendants on bail, to decide whether the hearing should be adjourned to a date after the anticipated amendments to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003 come into force. It may be appropriate to adjourn rather than to hold an attended hearing before that date if the hearing is one for which the Court would have the power to make live link directions with the objective of reducing attendance at court.
  11. Anyone who wishes to wear a mask during court proceedings is welcome to do so. We will endeavour to deal sensitively with any issue as to security, identification, or people making themselves heard.
  12. In courts with more than one case listed advocates and defendants are not expected to be in court before the case is called on. Please be available in the general vicinity of the court when your case is due to be called on.
  13. The lists will have additional time markers to separate cases and to reduce waiting time at court for all participants. When you have finished a case please leave the courtroom promptly so that the following case can be called on.
  14. Advocates should generally avoid the front row of benches to maintain separation from the clerk. Advocates are invited to spread out to any appropriate position so as to achieve distance between participants in a hearing. If you are further from a microphone than usual, please be aware that you will need to speak up to ensure that recording and amplification into the dock are effective.
  15. No paper documents should be passed around at any hearing. In light of the Bar Council guidance on litigation, I formally give my permission to any advocate to upload materials required for their case to DCS.
  16. Officers in the case will not be required to attend for non-trial hearings: the default position when an officer is required will be for them to be available by telephone.

20. Interpreters are encouraged to sit further from the person for whom they are   interpreting than would be normal.

  1. In hearings where a defendant is on bail, and there is no immediate prospect of bail being withdrawn, defendants will not be required to surrender to the dock, to reduce the exposure of our dock officers.

22.Witness Support is not operating at the moment, so our court staff are having to look after any witnesses who attend.

What you can do to help:

23.Please review your cases listed for trial, and communicate with the other party, to explore any possibility of resolution without trial.

24.Please be pro-active in alerting the court if you think it is appropriate for any hearing to be heard remotely.

  1. If there is information known to you which would assist the court, please let us know: for instance, if the defendant does not wish to attend a contested bail hearing or a custody time limit extension application, we would be able to list those applications as a remote hearing.

26.Your duty to actively assist the court in fulfilling its duty to actively manage the case includes under CPR 3.3(2)(e), a duty to alert the court to any reason why a live link direction in relation to a pre-trial hearing should not be made, or should be varied or revoked.

  1. Please assist our staff where you can, and in particular help them to maintain their distance.

28.If members of the public attend in support of a defendant and you have the opportunity, please ask them to sit apart from each other in the public gallery.

If you have any further suggestions as to how we might improve these proposals, please email the Harrow Crown Court, and mark your email for the attention of HHJ Dean.

HHJ Rosa Dean Harrow Crown Court

23rd March 2020

 

Updated guidance from lord chief justice – Coronavirus

The lord chief justice, Lord Burnett, issued this guidance at 7am:

Events have continued to move at great speed. I indicated during the course of last week that we would keep them under review. As the Prime Minister has been telling the country, the spread of Covid 19 has continued to accelerate. The clear message from Government is to take all precautions to avoid unnecessary contact. A review of the arrangements in our courts is called for. This short statement comes late on Sunday to judges, and more widely, to provide some clarity for the coming few days.

We have put in place arrangements to use telephone, video and other technology to continue as many hearings as possible remotely. We will make best possible use of the equipment currently available; HMCTS is working round the clock to update and add to that. Some hearings, the most obvious being jury trials, cannot be conducted remotely.

Crown Courts

1.My unequivocal position if that no jury trials or other physical hearings can take place unless it is safe for them to do so.

2. This morning no new trials are to start. Jurors summoned for this week are being contacted to ask them to remain at home, and contact the court they are due to attend. They will only be asked to come in for trials where specific arrangements to ensure safety have been put in place. In some cases, this may mean that jurors may be called in to start a new trial later on Monday.  All hearings in the Crown Court that can lawfully take place remotely should do so and other hearings not involving a jury should continue if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure distancing.

3. Efforts to bring existing jury trials to a conclusion should continue. Social distancing in accordance with PHE guidelines must be in place at all times and at all places within the court building. Considerable imagination and flexibility may be needed to achieve that. This is already happening in some Crown Courts. HMCTS are working to make good deficiencies in basic hand washing and sanitising facilities.  If it is necessary to adjourn trials already underway for a short period to put those safety measures in place, this must be done.

4.HMCTS will continue to work to ensure that safety measures are in place in all parts of the court building in which trials are already taking place.  The basic hygiene arrangements urged upon us by the Prime Minister must be available.  Resident Judges, with their staff, will determine whether a trial can safely be continued.

Magistrates

5.The same considerations apply to Magistrates’ Courts. Magistrates’ Courts will need to continue to deal with urgent work, in accordance with guidance given by the Senior Magistrate to judges and staff. They are the first court to which all criminal cases are referred. All hearings that can lawfully take place remotely should do so if the facilities exist.

Civil and Family Courts

6.Guidance has already been given about the use of remote hearings.  Hearings requiring the physical presence of parties and their representatives and others should only take place if a remote hearing is not possible and if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure safety.

This guidance will be updated, as events develop.”

 

WEEKEND UPDATE Covid-19 Stakeholder Update from the Ministry of Justice

This update was sent out by the Ministry of Justice:

This is the Ministry of Justice’s regular stakeholder communications update service. This is intended to signpost the latest Covid-19 guidance and central government updates.

We would find it helpful to know about your own communications plans and any intel that will help inform our communications moving forwards. If you know an organisation which should to be added to the list please do get in touch at samantha.abrahams@justice.gov.uk or shamir.patel1@justice.gov.uk

We want to take this opportunity to say thank you to all those people who have been in touch this week providing intel and feedback, enabling us to improve our communications. Please do keep sending through your resources and ideas.

Please find today’s update below.

We have robust and well-established plans to ensure we can continue to deliver key services across the justice system. Legislation is being sought through an emergency bill in response to the virus that could extend the circumstances in which a court can direct the use of audio or video links. Prisons are well prepared to take immediate action wherever cases or suspected cases are identified, including the isolation of individuals where necessary.

NEW: Clarification on legal practitioners covered by key worker category The Government has confirmed that keyworkers include those “essential to the running of the justice system”. On Friday, the Ministry of Justice shared a list of key workers within this category.

We would like to provide further clarification of those legal practitioners covered within this category who are essential to the running of the justice system, and, in particular, the courts and tribunals:

· Advocates (including solicitor advocates) required to appear before a court or tribunal (remotely or in person), including prosecutors

· Other legal practitioners required to support the administration of justice including duty solicitors (police station and court) and barristers, solicitors, legal executives, paralegals and others who work on imminent or ongoing court or tribunal hearings

· Solicitors acting in connection with the execution of wills

· Solicitors and barristers advising people living in institutions or deprived of their liberty

Only legal practitioners who work on the types of matters, cases and hearings listed above, will be permitted to be classified as a keyworker.

In addition, some legal practitioners will intermittently fall into this category because they need to provide advice or attend a hearing for an urgent matter relating, for example, to safeguarding of children or vulnerable adults, or a public safety matter. For the limited time required to deliver this work, a legal practitioner will be a key worker.

As the Government has said, many parents who are key workers may be able to ensure their child is kept at home and every child that can safely be cared for at home, should be.

As events evolve this guidance may change. Please ensure you regularly check this and other Government guidance for the most up to date information.

HMPPS

HMPPS has been working closely with Public Health and NHS services, as well as criminal justice partners, to put robust contingency plans in place. The plans prioritise the safety of staff, prisoners, visitors and offenders under supervision in the community, whilst seeking to minimise disruption to normal services and ensure public protection. The following page will continue to be updated when new advice is available: gov.uk/guidance/coron

HMCTS

During this unprecedented public health emergency, it’s essential that our courts and tribunals continue to administer justice. We are adjusting practices and taking steps to minimise any risk to the judiciary, court staff and users. Any changes to individual hearings will be communicated directly to those affected in the usual way, by email and/or phone. The following page will continue to be updated when new advice is available: gov.uk/guidance/coron

Latest general guidance NEW Major new measures to protect people at highest risk from Coronavirus – gov.uk/government/new

Guidance for businesses – gov.uk/government/pub

Home isolation / ‘stay at home’ guidance – gov.uk/government/pub

Social distancing / vulnerable people – gov.uk/government/pub

Please continue to refer to GOV.UK/coronavirus for the latest information on the situation in the UK and the Government’s response. For information about the illness and symptoms visit nhs.uk/coronavirus

Suggested Emergency Protocol during COVID-19 Outbreak from the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association

During the current epidemic, the criminal justice community must do what we can to keep the justice system going, but in a way which does not ignore the pleas from NHS workers, who are risking their lives to keep us safe.

In order to stem the spread of the virus, our courts and police stations must urgently adopt the following measures:

1. Delay non-urgent cases

Adjourn non-urgent criminal cases for 2 months. Criteria for ‘non urgent’ to be agreed with professional bodies, Senior Judiciary, HMCTS and MOJ.

2. Adopt remote hearings

Urgent hearings to be temporarily conducted by video or telephone where possible so long as fair trial rights are maintained. These technologies to be urgently improved and expanded to allow non-urgent hearings to be phased back after 2 months.

3. Prioritise arrest cases

Arrests to be reserved for essential cases only, with an increased use of street bail. Voluntary interviews and postal requisitions to be delayed where possible.

4. Avoid physical attendance

If the detention of suspects is necessary, solicitors and appropriate adults to be permitted to attend via video-link, using facilities already in place for translators.

5. Make facilities safe

Where physical attendance at court or police stations is required, Covid-19 risk assessment of defendants to be carried out and all relevant parties provided with a copy, regular deep cleans of all facilitates, and hand

Coronavirus – From the recorder of Preston

This was issued today by the recorder of Preston.

To the Barristers & Solicitors Practising in the Lancashire Crown Courts

Dear all,

Please forgive the impersonal nature of this message and I hope you will understand it is impossible to contact everyone directly. It has indeed been a dramatic week and the impact of the Covid-19 virus will be significant on the legal profession.

The judiciary appreciates that many of you will be concerned and anxious about the future. This message is intended to inform you what is happening in the Lancashire Crown Courts and the way in which we are planning to deal with the work. Of course, the situation is changing rapidly so that any planning will have to take account of a moving landscape.

Following the Prime Minister’s Statement on Monday (16th March), the Lord Chief Justice decided that all trials of 3 days+ listed before the 30th April should not go ahead.

In Lancashire there are 39 trials falling into this category of which 11 are custody cases. These 39 cases represent a significant proportion of the trial work and for this reason there are no trials listed on Monday (23rd March). It is planned that in the coming week probably on Thursday and Friday (26th and 27th March) the cases will be listed for mention and fix when there can be a stock-take about them.

Any defendants in custody will appear over the prison video link so custody time limits can be considered and if any of you wish for defendants on bail to attend, then please inform the Preston daily listing officer.

A final decision has not been made about the relisting of the work though at present it appears cases up to 5 days can be listed in October. My concern is that some cases will already have been delayed and it may be unfair they are being pushed back to later in the year. Also, if the Lord Chief Justice was to decide that all trials should not be listed then the whole situation will have to be reviewed.

If it is possible for any of the cases to be resolved, then the judges will assist within the normal parameters available to them. The advantage of the cases being listed in this way is that you can have an influence on a new date.

There are other practical challenges which have arisen during the last week. You will probably have heard the Witness Service will not be operating from Monday (23rd March) because a lot of the volunteers are over 70 years old. The burden of managing witnesses will inevitably fall on the CPS or defence. HMCTS has directed that court and administrative staff who are either over 70 or have a relevant underlying health condition should self-isolate for the next 12 weeks.

A large proportion of the Lancashire staff fall into this group and it means the staff will be significantly depleted. We will only be able to operate around five Crown Courts because of insufficient ushers/court clerks. It has been decided the work should be centralised at Ringway because it will be easier to manage. Therefore, it is likely the other Crown Courts will not be used, and it is appreciated this will have a big impact though it is hoped it will only be a short-term measure.

The other change is the caterers at Ringway will not be providing a service on Monday (23rd March) when they will be reviewing their position. Given the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday (20th March) about cafes and restaurants being closed, it may affect them as well so Ringway may lose them until the crisis is over.

The administrative staff are continuing to receive many requests from witnesses and defendants who are seeking excusal from attending court. Every request will be considered on its merits and the guidance issued by the Senior Presiding Judge is being applied. It is likely many of the cases will be listed for a hearing so a new trial date can be fixed.

No final decision has been made about when the cases might be relisted and if there is a hearing then you can have a say about it. Again, if you think it might be possible for a case to be resolved so wish a defendant to attend the hearing, do inform the listing officer.

Finally, some barristers or solicitor advocates have made requests to appear at hearings by video link or telephone. The listing officer has been informed that any request to appear over video link should be granted if possible but please appreciate it does create extra burdens for the staff. That is why the use of video link this way has been restricted but given the current crisis the practice has been relaxed. Nonetheless, the staff is depleted and do understand that if there are many requests it may not be possible to grant them all.

Although telephone hearings may be suitable for civil or family justice work, at the present time the criminal courtrooms are not really equipped for it and such requests will not be granted.

You are encouraged to ensure you have Skype Business because it is likely that in the coming weeks there will be greater use of it in the Crown Courts.

Your commitment and dedication helping to keep the Lancashire Crown Courts operating is much appreciated. My philosophy is that the Crown Court is the ‘sum of the parts’ and you have a critical role ensuring it continues to function. It is vital you remain healthy and virus free and I urge you to follow the Government advice about it.

You have my best wishes as you face a challenging and difficult time ahead and you can be assured the judges will do what they can to support you.

Mark Brown

His Honour Judge Mark Brown Resident Judge for Lancashire and Recorder of Preston

Addendum: We have tried to fill the gaps with appeal cases but the virus is having an impact on the availability of magistrates. Also, sentences often need pre-sentence reports and the Probation Service is facing the same challenges over staffing.

From the lord chief justice – COVID-19

This note was sent from the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett, this morning:

Civil and Family Courts: Covid-19

Events have been moving so fast that detailed guidance on how to sustain the administration of justice in these two important jurisdictions would be overtaken by developments very quickly.

We have an obligation to continue with the work of the courts as a vital public service, just as others in the public sector and in the private sector are doing.  But as I have said before, it will not be business as usual.

Yesterday’s announcement that schools will be closing three weeks early coupled with the need for those over 70 and with health problems to stay at home will have an immediate impact on the ability and willingness of people to attend courts and tribunals.

We are making arrangements to include those working in the courts within the scope of key workers who will be able to continue to send their children to schools. Further information about that will come later.

The rules in both the civil and family courts are flexible enough to enable telephone and video hearings of almost everything. Any legal impediments will be dealt with.

HMCTS are working urgently on expanding the availability of technology but in the meantime we have phones, some video facilities and Skype. User information on Skype is on the intranet and otherwise widely available. Further work is being done is being done in connection with the criminal courts.

Both YouTube and written guidance on how to use Skype are now up on the rolling COVID-19 Judicial Intranet page. You can find it here: https://intranet.judiciary.uk/practical-matters/coronavirus-covid-19/ under the heading ‘Using Skype’.

The default position now in all jurisdictions must be that hearings should be conducted with one, more than one or all participants attending remotely. That will not always be possible. Sensible precautions should be taken when people attend a hearing. They are now well-known. We all take them when out of the home. There will be bumps along the road as we all get used to new ways of working forced on us by the biggest public health emergency the world has faced for a century.

Many more procedural matters may be resolved on paper within the rules.

You will all have been following the detail of the government’s advice and the science on which it is based. It is clear that this pandemic will not be a phenomenon that continues only for a few weeks. At the best it will suppress the normal functioning of society for many months. For that reason, we all need to recognise that we will be using technology to conduct business which even a month ago would have been unthinkable.  Final hearings and hearings with contested evidence very shortly will inevitably be conducted using technology. Otherwise, there will be no hearings and access to justice will become a mirage. Even now we have to be thinking about the inevitable backlogs and delays that are building in the system and will build to an intolerable level if too much court business is simply adjourned.

I would urge all before agreeing to adjourn any hearing to use available time to explore with the parties the possibility for compromise.

Some outline guidance follows:

Designated Civil Judges and Designated Family Judges should work with operational staff and listing staff to establish priorities and to consider how hearings can continue to take place as safely as possible.

Social distancing

Local practices will need to take account of variations in court facilities and the range of work that the court handles. The leadership judges with local HMCTS managers are best placed to consider local arrangements and will be supported by the Presiding Judges and Senior Judiciary in finding solutions that allow for civil court business to continue in a safe environment including making necessary adjustments to avoid large numbers of members of the public congregating in small waiting areas.  Telephone and video hearings will help. So too might avoiding or reducing block listing; identifying empty courts or other areas that can be used for waiting; if necessary, requiring people to wait outside until called.  Whatever solutions are identified, people must not be required to wait in close proximity to one another.

Litigants in person

Unrepresented parties may have difficulty with telephone hearings.  Sensitivity will be required.  It is very unlikely that a telephone hearing would work if a litigant in person is:

  • homeless;
  • chaotic because of alcohol or drug use;
  • has learning disabilities;
  • has significant mental health issues;
  • or has other needs or disabilities which would militate against telephone hearings.

We expect the full co-operation of the legal profession to facilitate telephone hearings as hitherto. Indeed, the professions willingness to be imaginative in the use of remote technology is clear from discussions I have had with the President of the Law Society and Chair of the Bar Council.

Trials and hearings involving live evidence

The Rules allow evidence to be received by telephone, video-link etc.

It may be difficult to maintain trials and final hearings in the short term, not least because of the inability of people to participate at all.  As events develop individual decisions on priorities and practicalities will have to be made.  The message is to do what can be done safely

Civil and Family court business must be sensitive to other priorities for people’s time.  Many people are in critical jobs (e.g. NHS, Police) and will need to be elsewhere.

Prioritising work

Designated Civil Judges and Designated Family Judges will need to work with operational and listing staff to identify local priorities, taking account of the availability of resources and the practical arrangements that can be implemented safely. All judges are to be encouraged to think creatively about solutions to maximise social distancing while allowing as much court business as possible to continue in a safe environment. Judges should be deployed as efficiently as possible at all times.

Listing officers will undoubtedly face significant challenges. To assist them as much as possible, some pragmatic decisions will have to be taken, for example as to classes of non-urgent work that simply cannot be accommodated where the default position will be to remove such work from the list.

Civil Aspects

Possession Proceedings

It is likely that the emergency legislation will affect this area of work.  But it is obvious that particular sensitivity is needed irrespective of that. Applications to suspend warrants of possession should be prioritised.

Block listing of possession claims is inappropriate at this time because it would be difficult to maintain appropriate social distancing.

Judges dealing with any possession claim during the crisis must have in mind the public health guidance and should not make an order that risks impacting on public health.

Injunctions and committal hearings

Applications for injunctions and committal are likely to be urgent and such work will need to be prioritised.

Applications for breach of an injunction or undertakings are unlikely to be suitable for telephone hearing.  Such applications are likely to be urgent and to require priority. Arrangements will be required for the safe hearing of such applications.

Civil Appeals

Most applications for permission to appeal, including oral reconsiderations, are likely to be suitable for telephone hearing, subject to practical arrangements and the observations above as to litigants in person.

Final appeals may be suitable for hearing by telephone.

Family Matters

The President of the Family Division is providing a more detailed document to assist judges sitting in the Family Court.

Crime

Particular problems are likely to be encountered in both the Magistrates’ Courts and the Crown Courts to which careful thought is being given.

The Lord Burnett of Maldon
Lord Chief Justice

• The judiciary has finally published this on its website: https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-message-from-the-lord-chief-justice-to-judges-in-the-civil-and-family-courts/

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.