Some suspects remanded to appear in court are being denied the opportunity to meet the solicitor defending them in person, it has been revealed.
Suspects in police custody from the Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, East and West Malling areas are routinely taken to Sevenoaks Magistrates Court where they are put on a video link with Medway Magistrates Court where their case is officially being heard.
But if they are being represented by the court duty solicitor, they are based at the Medway Court.
In theory, a video link can be made available for the solicitor to talk to his client confidentially before the trial, but in practice it is not available because there is only one and it is being used by the court itself.
John Moreland from Tonbridge-based Clarke Kiernam solicitors said: ”I was at Sevenoaks on Wednesday and none of the four remand cases there got to use the video link to speak to their defence lawyer.”
The best that can be done is for lawyer and client to talk over the phone and never actually meet.
The practice has been condemned by the Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge and Districts Law Society whose president John Spence has written an open letter to the court manager at Medway Magistrates Court.
He said: “While there may be operational reasons for this, we are alarmed to learn the practical effect on remanded persons from our area is to deny them a face-to-face consultation with a legal representative.”
“While those persons remanded at Medway Magistrates Court may speak to their solicitor face-to-face in the cells, the same cannot happen for those detained at Sevenoaks while their solicitor is at Medway.
“For the duty solicitor to have to use a phone to speak to his client is wholly unsatisfactory.
“Those remanded persons have had their liberty deprived and may be facing the continued loss of their liberty.
“Important decisions will need to be made which will affect the progress of their case, potentially for months if not years given the current court backlog.
This is inhumane
“To deny people access to a legal adviser they can see is inhumane.”
Mr Spence said: “Equally, those who are advised to plead guilty are being asked to trust the advice of a stranger’s voice over the phone. Given the reluctance of some to accept wrongdoing, we question how this approach may lead to the swiftest possible resolution to a case for the court, the defendant and the victims.”
Mr Spence said: “As a barest minimum, security staffing levels at Sevenoaks should be resolved to enable the operation of the video consultation system.”
The problem began a month ago when Kent police stopped operating video remand hearings from police stations.
Now all defendants are collected from police custody to appear before the remand courts at Medway or Folkestone.
But as there are insufficient cells within the Medway building to accommodate all the anticipated detainees, some are produced at Sevenoaks to appear virtually before Medway court.
Richard Newman, senior legal manager with the court service, said: “Operationally we cannot administer a remand court at every site within Kent as this would prevent us from dealing with other cases effectively.
“The centralisation of remand courts enables more effective listing of other business types and separation of the court lists.
“There are video link facilities within the cells area at Sevenoaks, and since the second week of physical remands there are sufficient staff on site to facilitate video link being used.
“There was an issue during the first week, however that has been resolved.
There is not enough resource in the justice system
He said: “The tension arises when there is late production of prisoners to all sites, as this creates pressure on the court to deal with the cases in a timely manner.
“It is against this pressure that it may be difficult for the solicitor, who is not at Sevenoaks, to conduct a video link consultation with the defendant as there is only one booth to service both the court, and others who require to speak to the defendants. In this situation a telephone call is the only alternative.”
However, Mr Newman said the courts would begin gathering data on how many requests for video consultations were not fulfilled and why.
He also said the court was “open to discussing” whether a duty remand soicitor could be based at Sevenoaks so that face-to-face consultations with defedant scould take place, with the downside being the solictor would then up addressing the court remotely by video.
Mr Moreland said: “I cannot understand why the court feels it is justifiable to deny people in the West Kent area the same rights that are given to those in the Medway area.
“How can it possibly be right that people who have had their liberty deprived in Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding districts are told they can only speak to a solicitor over the phone, unless they’re lucky and it’s convenient for the court to set up a video link; while those in the same position in the Medway area will have access to a face-to-face consultation with a solicitor without any issues?
“It’s a postcode lottery on the administration of justice and one which comes down disproportionately on our region.”
Mr Moreland observed that there is a third court room at Sevenoaks that has been unused since pre-Covid days and that could be used for cases to be heard locally.
He said: “The real problem is there is just not enough resource in the justice system.”