Independent monitoring of court custody and escort – key findings – December 2017

In December 2017, Lay Observers spoke to 456 of the 946 people in court custody during their visits.

As winter took hold, the temperature in cells fell in courts with defective heating systems. 15 custodies had very cold temperatures that had an impact on the wellbeing of both detained people and staff. In many of these, the problems were not new and low temperatures in winter were predictable. As with other problems affecting the cleanliness, safety and maintenance of custody areas, some were met with a prompt response while in others remedial action took longer. Although more cells are being taken out of use as a temporary solution, pressure on court custodies and larger numbers of detained people, as a result of court closures, can prevent this. Lay Observers are monitoring the effectiveness of the new HMCTS ‘Building Champions’, but to date different response times appear to be related to the responsiveness of individuals, rather than a formal prioritisation process.

Lay Observers are starting to report a trend of improvement in the accuracy of PERs (Person Escort Records), which is to be welcomed as long as it is sustained. However, in 35% of court custodies, PERs could not be relied upon for assessing risk, as many lacked information on medication and dates in relation to risk markers.

A critical concern is the way the health needs of detained people and medication is managed. Inaccuracies in the recording of health conditions routinely puts detained people at great risk. At one crown court in December, 12 out of 13 PERs from one particular prison contained no medical information whatsoever. One person’s recent head injury was recorded as a facial injury, meaning that the risk of complications could be missed by those caring for him.

The greatest risk to the health of detained people is the lack of continuity of care that arises when an individual moves from one custodial setting to another – police custody to court or prison custody to court. Information is not always shared effectively and detained people are often deprived of regular doses of the medication they need – this is a particular risk when an individual is brought to court from prison and is away from the prison longer than expected.

This month, 15% of those spoken to by Lay Observers were in court with inadequate medication to cover the day and return journey – if this sample is representative of detained people as a whole, this would point to more than a thousand people per month in court custody without adequate medication.

Lay Observers came across detained people in court custody without medication to control blood pressure, epilepsy, anxiety, drug withdrawal or manage pain from a recent injury. One person who had been in custody for 48hrs took medication for anxiety and had been without medication that day and the previous day. Missing routine doses of medication must have had an impact in the context of a stressful  court appearance.

The number of people brought to court unnecessarily increased in December. Lay Observers remain concerned about the treatment of young people in court custody and under escort, who often face particularly long journeys and long waits at court. One was disappointed to meet a young person who spent his 17th birthday being brought to court unnecessarily, with a long journey both ways, when a video link could have been used. However, it was good to note that he was treated well by staff, who were sensitive to his situation.