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Court custody watchdog praises staff dedication during Covid-19 outbreak

John Thornhill, the National Chair of the Lay Observers (LOs) – who are volunteers appointed by ministers to ensure that people transported to and detained in court custody are treated with respect and decency – today praised the ‘caring and committed’ approach of court and escort staff during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The 60-strong LO team is maintaining its statutory duty to monitor the treatment of detained persons who are brought to and held in court custody suites at what is a difficult time for all involved.

Although personal visits to courts by LOs – who are based across England and Wales – have been deferred for now, members of the team are in regular contact with the officers who drive the detainees to and from court and the custody staff who look after them whilst at court.

The LO team focus on the procedures for protecting the health and wellbeing of detainees including some suspected of having the Covid-19 virus also the officers who manage them.  The LO reports are generally very positive about the quality of treatment detainees receive on transport and in the custody suites and reflect the constructive procedures implemented by Prison Escort and Custody Services (PECS), Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) and the contractors’ teams who deliver transport and custody services locally.

Mr Thornhill said:

“I pay tribute to the dedication of this little-recognised group of custody and escort officers for their caring and committed approach to the children, young people and adults in their custody.

“The LO team’s discussions with staff show that they are going the extra mile – for example by ensuring social distancing with the use of two visitors booths opposite each other with doors open so solicitors can still speak to their clients directly at this very difficult time.”

The practicalities of social distancing for staff and the people detained within the confined environment of court custody and transport can be particularly challenging especially where the person detained has Covid-19 symptoms.

Lay Observers have flagged some concerns about inconsistency of practice:

  • the positive practice of Middlesbrough police in identifying detainees suspected of having the Covid-19 virus, getting them tested, giving advance notice to the receiving court  and the effective management of their transport to courts and prisons using cars rather than putting them into vans with other detainees is not replicated everywhere.  Many detainees with apparent virus symptoms are moved to courts and prisons without any prior warning or appropriate precautions thus putting other detainees, escort, custody and prison staff at risk. The incompleteness of information in at least 50% of Person Escort Records, (PERs) particularly for such detainees, precludes custody and escort officers from making informed risk assessments for each detainee about social distancing and handcuffing.

The National Chair has been assured that these concerns are being addressed by HMCTS and PECS but LOs will continue to monitor the situation.