Since May 2014 the DPP has permitted solicitors to attend suspect interviews in garda stations.
Earlier this year however, the Irish Supreme Court in DPP v Doyle refused to recognise this as a constitutional right. The practice continues without the guidance of clear legislation or regulation.
Jodie Blackstone, of law reform and human rights organisation Justice, told the conference that the forensic enterprise has been front-loaded from the courtroom to the police interview but that safeguards have not been put in place.
Professor John Jackson of the University of Nottingham School of Law warned of backsliding and said that even when there is no reason given for denying access to a solicitor, courts may still deem proceedings to be fair.
The conference heard that a police station is a hostile environment, irrespective of the nature of the questioning. However solicitors who had availed of SUPRALAT [Strengthening suspects’ rights in pre-trial proceedings through practice-oriented training for lawyers] described it as invaluable.
“It gives the confidence, technique and knowledge to deal with police station situations,” said Northern Ireland solicitor John Finucane.
Jodie Blackstone said that a lawyer in a police station is outside the collegiate environment of the courtroom and without any judicial arbiter. This is not a role for a timid person, the conference heard, and the ability to deal with different policing styles is essential.
Detective Inspector Enda Mulryan agreed that not every police officer is capable of conducting a good suspect interview.
He said that reforms are being rolled out in the shape of the Garda Siochana Interview Model, which aims to build rapport and trust while retaining garda objectivity and the ability to challenge details of what is being said. He said a suspect interview should have ‘good closure’, which leaves the door open for future contact.
Criminal defence lawyer Shalom Binchy spoke about the long, unpredictable hours involved in attending at garda station interviews and the personal and professional toll the work can exact.
She said there are more hard arrests than soft arrests and that solicitors can be made to feel unwelcome in inhospitable garda stations.
She pointed out that the video recording of interviews offers protection and that solicitors should make sure that all observations and concerns raised are on tape.
However, Shalom Binchy also said there is great satisfaction in being involved from the very first stage of the suspect interview and the insight gained can lead to meaningful interventions at a later trial stage. This early-stage involvement also leads to more respect and loyalty from a client, she said.
Defence solicitors should have an input into drafting of legislation in this area and it is wrong that prosecuting gardai should have a role in choosing a defence solicitor, Shalom Binchy argued.
Detective Inspector Mulryan clarified that an instruction had been issued to all gardai on 19 July 2017 that this practice was to cease.
Liam Herrick of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties said that policing is the central arm of the state for vindicating the rights of the public and that the treatment by police of suspects in Ireland is no worse than in other European countries.
On the topic of suspects who may be mentally ill and therefore vulnerable, Mr Justice Esmonde Smyth pointed out that in Britain it is proposed to put psychiatric nurses into all of the large custodial police stations.
Defence solicitor Shalom Binchy responded that solicitors may need training in how to spot a mentally-ill person and in the skills in how to de-escalate such situations.
The practice of allowing access to a solicitor in garda suspect situations will enhance public confidence in the rule of law, the conference heard. It was also confirmed that rates of pay for legal aid solicitors are among the best in Europe.