Solicitor's 'guinea pig in some dystopian experiment’ outburst over hygiene at Sheffield police station and court

A solicitor has raised concerns about an apparent lack of hygiene measures within part of the city’s justice system amid the coronavirus outbreak – stating how he feels like a ‘guinea pig in some dystopian experiment.’

Tuesday, 24th March 2020, 3:23 pm
Updated Wednesday, 25th March 2020, 1:28 pm
The South Yorkshire Police Custody and Crime Centre at Shepcote Lane in Sheffield. The corridors leading to more police cells

Simon Gwynne, a criminal defence solicitor, said he was alarmed at an apparent lack of public health precautions at South Yorkshire Police’s Shepcote Lane Police Station near Meadowhall and at Sheffield Magistrates’ Court over the last few days.

He told how a colleague ‘had spent approximately 30 minutes across a desk from a detained person who, at that point, disclosed that he had visited his cousin, apparently diagnosed with coronavirus, on the previous day’ and added: “There appeared to be no additional cleaning of the custody suite being carried out.”

Mr Gwynne claimed there was ‘no hand sanitiser available’ and said a number of people in custody were ‘complaining of possible coronavirus symptoms’.

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The South Yorkshire Police Custody and Crime Centre at Shepcote Lane in Sheffield. A police cell.

The 62-year-old also had to ‘interview defendants, some coughing and spluttering in rooms in which the two metre social distancing could not be achieved.’

The solicitor made similar observations at Sheffield Magistrates’ Court, claiming there was ‘dust in the corridors’ and ‘not even a bottle of hand sanitiser in sight.’

He added that ‘given the choice of working in our current conditions or treating coronavirus patients in hospital, I would rather choose the latter.’

Mr Gwynne said: “I feel as if, for the last 48 hours, I have been a guinea pig in some dystopian experiment.”

The hygiene standards at The Magistrates Court in Sheffield have been called into question.

He raised his concerns in a letter penned to the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland MP that has been seen by The Star.

The Government HM Courts and Tribunal Service stated it is essential courts and tribunals continue to administer justice but practices have been adjusted with steps to minimise risks to the judiciary, staff, professional and the public.

Provisions have been put in place with arrangements to use telephone, video and other technology at as many hearings as possible.

Government advice states anyone who does not have a confirmed or possible coronavirus (COVID-19) infection or does not need to self-isolate, should continue to attend courts and tribunals as planned, unless informed otherwise.

Anyone with confirmed or possible coronavirus (COVID-19) infection or who needs to self-isolate in line with NHS advice, should contact the court or tribunal in which any relevant hearing is due to take place.

In a message to the public, South Yorkshire Police’s chief constable Stephen Watson said: “We are all now being enlisted, not to fight in a war, but to play a very small but crucial role in the fight against Covid-19.

“Whilst we may face unprecedented times, it does not require great bravery and courage. All that is required of you is to stay at home and to cherish some time with those closest to you. In doing so, we are protecting the vulnerable and the elderly, many of whom have given more than this to protect us.”

South Yorkshire Police and Sheffield Magistrates’ Court have been asked for comment.

The letter in full

Dear Mr Buckland,

I am not sure whether you will have either the time or the inclination to read this email but, as a criminal defence lawyer, I thought I might tell you how I have spent the last 48 hours.

Yesterday I was 'duty solicitor' covering Shepcote Lane police station, the 'custody suite' for the Sheffield and Rotherham area.

I attended to advise a number of detained people with some trepidation. One of my colleagues on the previous day had spent approximately 30 minutes across a desk from a detained person who, at that point, disclosed that he had visited his cousin, apparently diagnosed with coronavirus, on the previous day.

There appeared to be no additional cleaning of the custody suite being carried out. Solicitors were banned from even approaching the area housing the custody sergeants and detention officers and were confined to the back corridors containing the interview rooms.

There was no hand sanitiser etc available, and we were also banned from using the internal 'staff' toilets, having instead to use the public toilet in the foyer.

I spent a number of hours either across a table from a detained person, or sitting next to that person with a total of four (or in one case five, including an interpreter) other people in interview rooms in which attempting to keep a 2 m separation, as recommended by the government, was impossible.

Today, despite the current circumstances, 21 defendants were produced to Sheffield Magistrates’ Court in custody from the police station.

Although not a record, this was a far higher number than usual and included two defendants, one for an offence of drunk and disorderly, and one for a section 5 public order offence who, in my view, the police had no legitimate power to detain post-charge, let alone detaining them in the current circumstances.

Others were bailed by the court without any degree of contention, leading to the thought that they could have been bailed, post charge, without difficulty and subject to bail conditions where appropriate'

Of those in custody, a number were complaining of possible coronavirus symptoms. All were kept in multiply occupied cells, having been transported together. I and numerous colleagues had to interview defendants, some coughing and spluttering, in rooms in which the 2 m 'social distancing' could not be achieved.

I am not sure what the cleaning arrangements are in the court but simply observing the dust in the corridors, the broken seats in court et cetera et cetera, it is clear that it is not a hygienic building at the best of times. If, which I doubt, it is cleaned on a regular basis, certainly there have been no extra measures put in place since the outbreak of the coronavirus. Not even a bottle of hand sanitiser in sight. To get through from the solicitors room and the youth court to the main courts, one has to negotiate five doors.

By way of comparison, I am aware that, prior to being closed, my local gym had put in place a regime of all door handles being disinfected hourly, and all gym equipment and mats every two hours. People had a choice whether to go to the gym and yet seemingly my colleagues and I do not, although we all appreciate the importance of keeping the criminal justice system going, at least to the extent that is essential.

If we were not committed to this principle, we would all have self isolated some time ago and, as a result of the position we are being put in, it may be that we will all be self isolating fairly shortly for genuine reason.

I regret to say that in a failing criminal justice system that is kept going in good measure by the goodwill of the 'defence community' that goodwill is waning fast. As I said to a colleague yesterday, given the choice of working in our current conditions or treating corona virus patients in hospital, I would rather choose the latter, hopefully at least having some PPE and feeling that I was doing something necessary and valid.

I appreciate that this is a fast moving situation but, as is so often the case, the feeling is that those in power neither know nor care about those on the 'at the coalface'.

At 62, and having been admitted in 1982, and despite the temptation to do so, I have never previously put 'pen to paper' to comment on the many shortcomings within the system. However the current situation is not simply inconvenient but, as the government keeps telling us, extremely serious.

In Sheffield, I would anticipate that at least 50 per cent of the criminal defence solicitors are 60+ (we cannot afford to retire) and although not therefore deemed in the 'vulnerable' category, we are not entirely spring chickens.

We are used to dealing with a section of the public for whom personal hygiene is not generally a priority. We frequently encounter clients who spit or have open wounds. We are used to dealing with those who are HIV positive, have hepatitis B or C, occasionally tuberculosis or have scabies.

In short, we are not generally easily scared. However being expected to work at present in circumstances directly contrary to all government advice to others is wholly unacceptable, and although I speak predominantly in my capacity as a defence solicitor, my sympathies extend to all others within the system, particularly the staff of Geo Amy who are currently confined in hazardous conditions for long periods.

As I say, I am aware of fast changing circumstances and directives; I just hope that recent events do not result in the decimation, permanent or otherwise, those on the frontline of the criminal justice system. I feel as if, for the last 48 hours, I have been a guinea pig in some dystopian experiment.

Yours faithfully

Simon Gwynne, criminal defence solicitor