In January 2018, Lay Observers spoke to 600 of the 829 people in court custody during their visits.
During a routine monitoring visit, Lay Observers record notable deficiencies in the standard of care for detained people and defects in the physical environment which may have a negative impact on those detained. These are graded according to their seriousness on a scale of 1–3, with ‘level 3’ being the most serious. The number of adverse assessments at all levels increased from 570 in December 2017 to over 700 in January 2018, including 14 ‘level 3’ issues. These included incidents that put the wellbeing of individual detained people at a high risk:
- paperwork errors that omitted to report that an individual was at risk of self-harm;
- unresolved facilities issues relating to heating, hot water and potential ligature points; and
- people with disabilities being brought to courts that were not accessible to them.
In one such case, at Blackfriars Crown Court, a female defendant with a disability was unexpectedly remanded in custody. She was unable to walk and used an electric wheelchair. The court had no suitable custody facilities so she was brought through the public area to be held in the court’s press office. There she was distraught and began to self-harm. Eventually she was escorted to prison in an accessible taxi with custody officers in view of the public at the front of the court. Although the staff dealt with the detained person very sensitively, the system discriminated against her.
The way in which custody staff meet the health needs of people whilst in custody remains a key concern for Lay Observers. During January, just over 20% of detained people had a medical condition. One individual who suffered from epilepsy was discovered to be in court custody without any medication other than a nicotine patch, having had a fit in police custody prior to arrival at court. At another court, two people were detained in custody in a poor physical and mental condition as a result of drug withdrawal. Situations like this not only affect people’s welfare but can also have an impact on their access to justice if they are not in a state to understand and participate in court proceedings.
The main tool for custody and escort contractors to be informed about health needs and risks is the paperwork which accompanies people around the system – the Person Escort Record (PER). There are still too many inaccuracies being uncovered by Lay Observers, with consequent risks to individuals. During a visit to one Greater London Magistrates’ Court, all 12 of the PERs inspected by the Lay Observer were incomplete, with errors in relation to prescribed medication and known risks. None contained any contact details for medical queries that might arise during the day in court.
Concerted efforts by Lay Observers, Custody and Escort Staff and their contract managers are starting to bear fruit and the accuracy of these crucial records are starting to improve in some areas where action has been taken. Now we need similar efforts to be made by all parts of the system – prisons, police, court custody contractors and the MoJ contract managers – working together to tackle the quality of all records to safeguard the welfare of detained people in all parts of the country.