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Not remotely fair? Access to a lawyer in the police station during the Covid-19 pandemic

Fionnuala Ratcliffe and Penelope Gibbs
23 Feb 2021

People detained in custody or otherwise interviewed by police have a right to free legal advice and assistance, to safeguard legal rights and ensure fair questioning. Solicitors normally make contact with clients in advance of interview via a short phone call, before attending the police station or other interview location. Children and mentally vulnerable adults are particularly at risk due to their specific needs – often relating to communication. Safeguards to ensure their fair treatment include having an “appropriate adult” and legal assistance (if requested) always being delivered in person. 

However, as the pandemic struck in March 2020, solicitors raised concerns about the Covid-19 safety of police custody, leading to anxieties that essential interviews with solicitors present at the police station would not proceed. A protocol was agreed between prosecutors, police and defence solicitors to mitigate health risks. It discouraged unnecessary interviews in detention and, contrary to established laws and procedures, supported the temporary remote delivery of legal representation in interview.

This report, produced in collaboration with Fair Trials and The National Appropriate Adult Network, aims to provide an insight into the implementation of the protocol and the effect of remote legal advice, particularly on children and mentally vulnerable people. An online survey was carried out with trained appropriate adults, many of whom continued to attend police custody throughout the pandemic. 315 responses were received between September and November 2020, from AAs active in all police force areas in England and Wales.