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Administration of Justice: Coronavirus

Question for Ministry of Justice

UIN 67589, tabled on 1 July 2020

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effect on access to timely justice for victims of limits on access for legal representatives to clients in custody as a result of the restricted regime on the custodial estate in England and Wales.

Answered on

9 July 2020

Alongside the closure of courts, the government suspended all but exceptional visits to prisons in March 2020. This was to ensure the safety of both prisoners and our staff through the pandemic.

HM Courts and Tribunal Service and HM Prison and Probation Service are working closely to reduce the backlog of court cases. As a result, crime recovery work is now moving at pace and we are operating jury trials in 41 crown courts. This has been a significant achievement, involving close working with public health partners. Further crown courts will be resuming jury trials throughout the course of this month. Throughout the pandemic, crown courts have continued to deal with pre-trial preparation hearings, case management and sentencing custody cases, among other hearings.

Despite the absence of physical visits, prisoners do maintain the right to access legal advice, and we have looked to ensure that prisoners continue to have the tools to make contact with their legal representatives via telephone, video link or written correspondence.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic we have enhanced the capability of prison videoconferencing facilities, particularly to support priority court work such as sentencing hearings and prisoners approaching their parole hearing dates. We have made use of the additional 1,250 mobile phones issued to prisons without in-cell telephony in order to facilitate private conversations with legal advisors, alongside encouraging governors to ensure prisoners can have conversations with their representatives in confidence.

We are also taking steps to increase the available capacity of video conferencing across the estate through increased operating hours to include longer hours during the weekdays, and at some locations on Saturdays. This will sit alongside renewed guidance to all governors on the importance of making sure that adequate time for legal advice is made available to prisoners where possible. Alongside this work, we are increasing the physical number of video link outlets at some critical sites where capacity is limited, as well as to support specialist courts, including youth and women’s prisons, together with the re-purposing of some unused spaces within prisons for more video link capacity.

As stated in our National Framework for recovery in prisons, we are adapting aspects of prison regime, in consultation with trade unions and health partners, to restart key services. We are consulting representatives of the legal profession on the resumption of legal visits so that they can resume in a safe manner.

The measures set out above seek to minimise potential delays or adjournments due to defence counsel being unable to receive instructions from their clients and therefore minimise the impact on victims caused by delays in their cases being heard in court.