The impact of COVID on police interviews
by Stacey Lukika
All of us have been affected by the changes/restrictions that have been implemented as a result of the current pandemic. Those attending police stations have not been exempt from this. The expectation has always been that the suspects have the right to choose whether or not they are legally represented and such expectation was never unreasonable, but the suspects’ right under PACE 1984. Since COVID19 however, many people found their expectation to differ from the new reality.
Following the national lockdown in March 2020, the police along with the Crown Prosecution Services implemented an interim protocol which almost took away the previous freedom to choose to be legally represented in an interview. Under this protocol, the custody officer is responsible not just for deciding whether an interview is necessary based on the severity of the case but also whether the interview could take place at a later date with the suspect being released until that time. Cases where there is compelling evidence against the suspects, under the new protocol the custody officers is able to send the matter to the Crown Prosecution Services for a charging decision without the suspect being interviewed. With the less severe cases, suspects are released pending an interview date or there is simply no arrest made. Nonetheless, in those severe cases where an interview is deemed necessary, various measures have been put in place to prevent the spreading of COVID19. This includes wearing masks, sanitizing hands, and observing the two meter distance. Legal representatives also under the protocol have a choice as to whether they attend in person to represent their client or do so via telephone or a virtual appearance. I know that a lot of forces have encouraged virtual or telephone attendance but my experience of West Midlands police has been that they have not been so keen on none physical attendances.
Whilst the wearing of masks, sanitizing hands and observing two meter distance has become our norm since March 2020, the new protocol however, has undoubtedly been very challenging for both the suspects and victims. Many suspects see the interview as an opportunity to set the record straight. Depriving them of such opportunity has therefore impacted on their ability to instruct solicitors once the matter reaches the court arena with many suspects believing if their defense was put forward at the interview, the matter would not have reached the court. On the flip side, many victims have reported crimes and have been told nothing can be done either because there is no compelling evidence of the crime having committed or due to COVID19, there is not enough resources to pursue their allegation. One can only imagine the mental affect that such response has had to those victims.
As a legal representative however, I see this new protocol as a blessing in disguise. I have been able to represent suspects both in the comfort of my home or whilst working in the office. The stress of having to travel to a police station later at night or early in the morning is no longer there. I am now able to sit on my desk continuing to work on other matters and simply tune into the interview once the police were ready to interview.