Camden law firms lead revolt against ‘business as usual’ approach
A total of 70 firms have now signed the letter
01 April, 2020 — By Bronwen Weatherby
CAMDEN law firms are leading a revolt against what they have called a “mindless business as usual approach” to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A letter from the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association and Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association to both its members last week said the Met Police’s reluctance to make any changes in such unprecedented times is “not safe or sustainable”.
A total of 70 firms from across London have now signed in agreement, including seven based in Camden.
These include Powell Spencer, Goldman Bailey, Birnberg Peirce, BSB Solicitors, Hodge Jones and Allen, Lewis Nedas and Bindmans
As part of a new protocol they have established, the firms have agreed to no longer conduct “face to face” meetings or attend police stations and magistrates’ courts in person where some lawyers have say the conditions are “unsafe”.
The letter said: “This is not a decision taken lightly. All of us understand that in ordinary circumstances face to face contact when communicating with and representing our clients is crucial.
“However, as we face a unique and unprecedented public health risk, inevitably to protect all involved in the Criminal Justice System as well as the wider general public, face to face contact must regrettably be suspended.
“We ask our members who have yet to take a decision to urgently review your policies. Solicitors will not be permitted to use video-link or telephone facilities if the police believe they can go back to the DSCC panel and find another solicitor who will attend in person.”
Greg Powell, whose firm Powell Spencer & Partners is on the Kilburn High Road, said: “The police are applying a mindless business as usual approach to work in the very confined spaces of police stations which are incompatible with social isolation.
“Defence solicitors will not risk the lives of the community and those involved by following unsafe practices, the police have to wake up and change the way they work”.
Rhean Bailey, of Goldman Bailey Solicitors, who spoke to the New Journal last week about the difficulty solicitors are facing in Magistrates’ Courts, said: “I withdrew my firm from any ‘face to face’ a week ago as none of our usual environments are safe.
“Police stations offer no protective measures – no social distancing, no PPE, even for their own officers it seems, no hand sanitiser or immediate access to hand-washing facilities.
“Every attempt to engage and represent remotely has been a battle. It is rarely the individual officers who are obstructive, but more those in decision-making roles.
Ms Bailey said she is aware of other police forces, including Kent, which had taken steps to minimise the risk to advocates.
“It is impossible to understand how the Met wish to continue as if nothing has changed in these wholly unprecedented times,” Ms Bailey said.
“They are not even protecting their own officers, who are already starting to fall ill. And trying to force solicitors to attend in person just adds to the risk of more people in and out of police stations, spreading this deadly virus wherever they go.
Police commander Chief Superintendent Raj Kohli told the New Journal he disagreed with the assessment on the hygiene conditions within police stations and said they have no plans to introduce more PPE gear for officers of people visiting custody suites.
He said: “It’s not business as usual, it’s business as unusual.We’re trying to deliver a service where people who ask for it don’t see a difference but internally we are doing things differently while maintaining the same quality.
“At the end of the day if you’ve been arrested then you’re entitled to legal advice. I’d never stop someone receiving advocacy and neither would I want a solicitor to feel uncomfortable.
“If I could trust detainees with mobile phones then they could video conference but unfortunately, I don’t trust them.
“The difficulty comes when they are being interviewed because the solicitor does need to be in the room, I guess you could have a mobile phone on speakerphone in the room but often the rooms are in the depths of the custody suite or basement so you are unlikely to get signal.
“They can absolutely ask for hand sanitiser and they can use the facilities to wash their hands. Solicitors have never been denied the use of toilet facilities ever.
“We can’t compare like for like with other police forces. The Met Police is the biggest police force in the UK by a long shot. We serve around 8-10 million people and there are 31,000 police officers and more staff. Central North which is just under my charge is around the size of Kent,” said Chief Supt Kohli.
“London is the epicentre of the UK coronavirus pandemic and it also generates the most crimes and calls to the police.”
Chief Supt Kohli revealed that in the event of a detainee displaying coronavirus symptoms the force would not shut a cell block down but give it a deep clean one the person has left.
A list of the law firms who have signed the letter can be found, here.