Court custody is failing to meet the welfare needs of children and young people, vulnerable people and people with disabilities

Lay Observers, who monitor conditions for detained people in court custody and under escort, call for action to promote the welfare and dignity of young, vulnerable and disabled people.

Lay Observers frequently uncover instances where the treatment of children, young people and vulnerable or disabled adults in court custody puts their welfare at risk.

In police custody, children, young people and vulnerable adults are safeguarded through the presence of an appropriate adult. Once they reach court custody, there is no such provision and they are treated like adults, placed in small windowless cells and cared for by custody officers with no special training.

The treatment of those with disabilities is also a cause of concern. Disabled people are frequently sent for trial at courts that are not accessible to them with the result that they are discriminated against and their dignity is not protected.

Lay Observer Chairman, Tony FitzSimons, said:

“What goes on in court custody and under escort to court is a hidden part of our justice system. It is very concerning that there is less protection for children and young people in court, where life changing decisions are made about their future.  It is not good enough that the needs of disabled people are not being met more than 20 years after the Disability Discrimination Act.

Lay Observers continue to raise these issues with the custody contractors and the Ministers and officials who oversee the contracts to press for changes to promote the dignity and wellbeing of the most vulnerable people in our court system”.

This hidden part of the criminal justice system is run by private companies – the custody and escort contractors – under contract to the Ministry of Justice. Lay Observers have a unique role as independent monitors of what goes on in the cells under our courts and in prisoner transport.

Recent examples of poor treatment include:

  • A 16-year-old girl being brought from a police station to Uxbridge Magistrates Court in a standard Serco prison vehicle with adult men. Although this was permitted under that particular contract, if under escort to or from a Youth Offender Institute or secure unit she would have to be escorted by specially trained officers in an unmarked car with tinted windows.
  • A woman with Down’s Syndrome spending five and half hours in a court cell before her appearance at Barkingside Magistrates Court. A doctor attended to provide treatment for a skin complaint but made no assessment of her ability to understand the situation. After more than seven hours in a small cell she was taken to prison on remand. The custody and escort contractor did not have a policy relating to people with Down’s Syndrome.
  • A woman with a disability who used a wheelchair was unexpectedly remanded in custody by a judge at Blackfriars Crown Court. The custody suite there was not accessible to her, so she was taken by custody officers through the public area and was held in the court’s press office. She then suffered the humiliation of being escorted to prison by officers in a taxi from the front of the court in full view of the public.
  • Another wheelchair user was brought from prison to Winchester Crown Court, which was not accessible to her. Although this was known by the prison authorities, they insisted on sending her to that court. On arrival she had to be returned immediately to the prison, resulting in an unnecessary uncomfortable journey.


Lay Observers are independent people appointed by the Secretary of State under S.81(1)(b) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. They have a duty to inspect the conditions in which Detained Persons are transported or held by escort and custody contractors in England and Wales.

Lay Observer expectations for detained persons

For all those in escort and court custody we expect:

  • Detained Persons to be treated with dignity and respect, free from discrimination;
  • Access to justice for Detained Persons, with all being given information about their rights and having the ability to access legal advice;
  • Detained Persons to be held in suitable accommodation that is clean safe and fit for purpose;
  • Detained Persons to be transported promptly in suitable vehicles;
  • Transport and custody to be managed in a way that supports Detained Persons’ wellbeing;
  • Responsible people properly exercising their duty of care in relation to Detained Persons’ health and personal care needs.