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Janem Jones is a consultant solicitor for a two-branch office in Ceredigion (also known as Cardiganshire); a rural county in West Wales which relies heavily on its tourist industry. Janem reviewed the impact of the pandemic during the 13th week of lockdown.
I currently work exclusively as a criminal defence solicitor and duty solicitor and have been extremely busy during lockdown. The Magistrates Court in Aberystwyth, our local court, has been closed and remand cases are taken to Swansea which is 75 miles away from Aberystwyth. During lockdown, those of us who live in Ceredigion have been allowed to deal with those remand cases remotely using TEAMS software. The Magistrates Court in Aberystwyth opened on Monday 15th June, even before we came out of lockdown in Wales, because Justice is not devolved to the Welsh Government.
Crime has certainly not stopped in Ceredigion during the pandemic. I should say that Ceredigion is a small county of 1703 square kilometres with a population of 72,992 and which forms part of the Dyfed Powys Police Force. The police have been extremely busy and police station interviews have increased. We only have 3 duty solicitors covering the whole of Ceredigion. This means that we are on duty every 3 days from 5.30pm - 9.30am the following morning on weekdays and from 9.30pm to 9.30am the following day on weekends.
In most of the UK, criminal defence solicitors are predominantly male. However, in Ceredigion, we have two female defence solicitors and one male defence solicitors. I wonder why the work does not appeal to women - is it the unsocial hours and the thought of having to get out of bed in the middle of the night and travel to the police station? I live 18 miles away from Aberystwyth Police station and the other two duty solicitors live at least 36 miles away. Or is it the low remuneration paid by the Legal Aid Agency for Criminal Defence work?
Certainly, we have learnt much more about being efficient during the lockdown period. Police station interviews, checked by the Dyfed Powys Police as being PACE compliant, have been conducted using TEAMS or just the telephone. The phone is always used for the smaller custody suite and these are normally voluntary interviews at Lampeter Police Station which does not have a custody suite. This method of working is certainly a financial saving for the Legal Aid Agency as the Agency does not then have to pay any travelling expenses. The police and detainee defendants in custody like this method of working as no-one has to wait for the defence solicitor to attend.
By June 2020, I had conducted 35 police station interviews and consultations during the lockdown period. Sometimes the interviews are extremely late at night but of-course, no travelling. It is difficult to recruit female solicitors who wish to be criminal defence solicitors and I just hope that this new or optional way of police station interviews will continue after the pandemic is over. I believe that more female solicitors will be attracted to criminal defence solicitor work if this method of conducting interviews continues. We are fortunate to have in our office an outstanding female trainee solicitor, who is committed to being a criminal defence solicitor and I know that the remote way of conducting police station interviews is far more appealing to her.
As I am writing this, the court staff at Aberystwyth have been working around the clock not only to ensure the court is as safe a place as possible for everyone who attends but also to clear the huge backlog of cases. However, the court is a vastly different from the one which closed on the 23rd March 2020. Two magistrates now sit instead of three, there are specific places in court for each person to sit and limited security when defence solicitors enter the court, to avoid any physical contact.
Perhaps, best of all, is the specific times for each defendant to attend court since the opening day of 14th June 2020. This is a significant and welcome innovation, rather than having all the defendants arrive by 9.00am on a specific day, as in the past. When the defence solicitor has more than one case, the cases will be listed consecutively. The hanging-around at court has been so wasteful for all defence solicitors and it also suits the defendant clients.
The Magistrates Court at Aberystwyth was previously a part-time court, open for four days a week but since the re-opening on 14 June 2020 has increased to five days. This has increased the burden on the duty solicitors, but once the huge backlog has cleared perhaps it will revert to the usual four days.
Looking back at lockdown, I consider a positive outcome is the tremendous amount that has been learnt about structuring the justice system better. However, one needs absolute peace and quiet to undertake police station interviews or a remand case using TEAMS. How I would have coped if I had children at home, with the usual needs, let alone the requirement to educate them, I cannot say!
Janem Jones, Solicitor, Consultant: Williams and Bourne LLP