The website police use to summon detainees’ defence solicitors has gone into ‘meltdown’ this week – sparking fears that people in custody are being denied proper access to justice.
The Legal Aid Agency on Friday (30 August 2019) said that its outsourced system used for calling duty solicitors to police stations – known as the Defence Solicitor Contact Centre (DSCC) – continues to be unavailable after 48 hours of “essential maintenance”.
Due to unanticipated duration of DSCC website maintenance, the website remains unavailable this morning.
We are working to restore it ASAP.
Apologies for any inconvenience caused. 48hr rule will continue to be waived during this outage. Continue to contact DSCC as normal.
— Legal Aid Agency (@LegalAidAgency), 30 August 2019
Solicitors trying to access a temporary email and phone line reported being unable to access key information amid 30-minute hold times and requests being sent in error.
The Police And Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) gives people arrested and held in custody the fundamental right to free and independent legal advice at any time while in a police station (unless a delay in accessing legal advice is permitted).
A Legal Aid Agency (LAA) spokesman said on Thursday that legal “representation was deployed to all clients where requested” amid the web outage.
RightsInfo understands that custody officers at police stations across the country were able to bypass the system and directly call upon duty solicitors, where detainees wanted representation.
“Everyone has the right to access legal representation, and police officers will always work to ensure this entitlement is facilitated in every case, and in a timely way,” said a spokesman for the National Police Chiefs’ Council.
It is a fundamental right to have the choice of solicitor – another right that should not be taken away because of IT or contractor failures.
Kerry Hudson, vice president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association
But crime solicitor Kerry Hudson, director of Bullivant Law, told RightsInfo that this is not an “adequate temporary solution” having received reports of duty solicitors being deployed to detainees requesting representation from specific firms.
The DSCC is designed to allow police officers to inform defence solicitors when a new person is detained or voluntarily attends a police station for an interview, Ms Hudson explained.
“The call centre’s job is to promptly deploy the case to the relevant duty solicitor on call or to the firm specified by the detainee,” said Ms Hudson, who is also the Vice President of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association.
“In terms of access to justice, detainees are entitled to elect their own solicitor or have the duty solicitor, if they do not have their own.
“Continuity of solicitor is important to access to justice as an own solicitor will know that person’s background and history – particularly important if they are vulnerable or have mental health problems.
“It also avoids duplication of work later on if cases go to court which could save on public funds.”
She added: “It is a fundamental right to have the choice of solicitor – another right that should not be taken away because of IT or contractor failures”.
She warned that the outage could also result in “potentially dangerous people who may have committed really serious crimes” being “released under investigation” without interview if defence solicitors are unable to be summoned within the 24-hour custody time limit.
Under PACE, police can usually only hold a person in custody for a day before they have to charge them with a crime or release them.
Image credit: Pxhere.
The DSCC’s apparent technical difficulties come following a change in the company responsible for running the centre.
Outsourcing giant Capita has been replaced by Hinduja Global Services (HGS UK), which was awarded the contract to run the DSCC in April.
DSCC currently in meltdown . Please all be aware that rep bodies including @CrimeSolicitors @TheLawSociety and criminal law committe of TLS are making loud noises to @LegalAidAgency and @MoJGovUK .sadly we’ve been here before and seems lessons weren’t learned
— Bill Waddington (@bill_wow) 28 August 2019
An LAA spokesman said: “Planned changes to the duty solicitor website coupled with more calls than anticipated during the bank holiday weekend have caused some delays.
“Despite this, representation was deployed to all clients where requested. We continue to work with our provider to ensure call times are improved and that quality is maintained.”
Want to learn more on this topic?
- Read about why prisoners have human rights.
- Take a look at why confidential communication with lawyers matters.
- Learn more about access to justice.