Richard Atkinson, co-chairman of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, has said that he is aware of cases where solicitors have been forced to join waiting lists of nearly two-and-a-half months just to secure a one-hour video-link slot with clients in prison while face-to-face contact is prohibited.
Even then, legal representatives are only able to book two one-hour slots a month with each client.
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The current situation compares to this time last year when solicitors were able to block out consecutive whole-day video meetings with clients, with just a week’s notice.
Mr Atkinson described the situation as “woefully inadequate”.
“You can only spend two hours a month with your client,” he told the PA news agency.
”If it is a paper-heavy case, that’s just woefully inadequate.”
Current delays make it impossible to meet court deadlines, he says.
“A 10-week delay means it is impossible to meet timetables and time limits for service of defence statements set by courts in order to facilitate the matter through the court,” he said.
”The state at present is very alarming with the time it is taking for legal visits to be booked and lawyers getting access to their clients.”
He added: “Hearings are being put back even as a matter of routine because they have no time to see their client.”
Judiciary ‘firmly in control’
Max Hill QC, the director of public prosecutions, said he was not aware of any problems currently affecting the judicial process during the pandemic.
“On the contrary, the judiciary are firmly in control of when cases are listed,” he said.
”They are, I’m glad to say, using the technology to permit remote hearings and I hope that will continue.
“But they are firmly in the driving seat and it’s the fundamental principle of each and every criminal case, wherever it is, that in our adversarial system we both fight our corner, prosecuting or defending, but it is the judge that is in control and I haven’t seen that being borne down on or compromised,” he added.
Mr Atkinson said the situation is leading to “great frustration and resentment” amongst clients.
”Not only are they not getting their case on, they feel their cases aren’t being prepared expeditiously,” he said.
“If you’re an innocent person sitting in prison, not able to speak to your solicitor and it’s being delayed, I can imagine it is a source of great frustration and resentment. It is undoubtedly a problem.”
Difficult to see ‘path ahead’
He added that some defendants are “clearly very anxious” about the delay.
“The conditions during Covid have not been great; they are in their cells for 23 hours a day in some circumstances.
“It is very difficult, I suspect, to see a path ahead when there are no dates attached,” he warned.
A Prison Service spokesperson said: ”The restrictions on face-to-face meetings undoubtedly saved lives and we worked hard to ensure legal advice continued remotely.
“We provided more than 1,000 extra telephone handsets and 500 video meeting rooms, and we are further increasing video capacity significantly over the coming months.”
Managing the risks posed by coronavirus in prisons has left many prisoners spending increased amounts of time in their cells, with a significant drop in visits.
Overcrowding in prisons remains a challenge, with a HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) assessment of HMP Preston in August concluding that social distancing was “all but impossible”.
Inmates at the prison in Lancashire were found sharing cells designed for just one person, and were locked up for 22 hours a day, the inspection found.
Additional reporting by Press Association