19:05, July 03 81 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-03 19:05:28
People risk unjust prison sentences due to lack of court healthcare

Innocent people are at risk of being given unjust prison sentences and suffering physical harm because of a lack of healthcare in courthouses, according to the outgoing head of the independent body charged with monitoring the care and welfare of those brought to court in England and Wales.

Tony FitzSimons, the outgoing chair of the Lay Observers’ National Council, has told the Guardian that there is a risk that at least 6% of those who come to trial go on to be imprisoned unfairly or kept in prison for too long, because a lack of medical attention while waiting for their case to be heard means they are not able to present their case effectively in court.

He also said that the “failing system” of court custody treats children accused of crimes so badly that he fears it could increase their likelihood of committing future crimes.

The Council’s third annual report, published on Wednesday, is scathing in the failings it records in the care of people held in custody at courts and transported between police stations, prisons and courts by escort contractors.

Lay Observers are appointed by David Gauke, the justice secretary, to provide independent oversight of how people detained in court cells are cared for and their access to justice.

Unpaid, they make 18,000 visits to courts every year. The report reveals that on average, each of those visits result in Lay Observers reporting four concerns about the conditions that detained people are kept in, one concern being “serious” or “unacceptable”.

FitzSimons said that, despite having written to ministers to warn that “the system is bound to fail” and an ongoing review of healthcare in the court custody environment initiated jointly by the NHS and Ministry of Justice, he is frustrated there have been no improvements.

“The way we’re treating people is not the way that, if you or I were accused of a crime, we would want to be treated,” he said. “What is happening to these people is not fair. Not by anyone’s definition. The system is failing and it’s bound to fail in the future in more obvious ways, like a death or serious accident. The risks are real.”

“One of the many issues for us is the frequency with which our observers see people lying on the hard, wooden bench in a court cell, shivering, shaking, frothing at the mouth [from alcohol or methadone withdrawal] and complaining of the cold -–and then seeing that person helped to their feet by court custody officers, wiped down and taken straight into court to face charges,” said FitzSimons.

There is no embedded medical support for detainees in court custody, as there is for those in prison and police custody. The standard medical operating procedures for those in police custody, for example, is 137 pages long.

The “main dangers” of the current system, said FitzSimons, is the “very real” risk of “prejudice and impairment of a person’s fitness for trial”. “In our view, that’s a very serious yet routine issue in courts,” he said. “About 25% of the people we see in courts have a medical impairment and of those, about 25% don’t have adequate medication.

“That means 6% of all detainees are having their access to justice impaired, which could mean being sent to prison or staying in prison longer than they should, because of erroneous judgements made against them by the judge as a result of them not being able to present their case effectively in court.”

FitzSimons said that the problem of police and prisons failing to accurately fill in detainees’ healthcare records is “very significant”. He estimates that 30% of detainees arrive at court with inaccurate records, about 20% of which create a serious problem for detainees: another 6% of all those who come to court.

“There is an increased risk of miscarriage of justice because someone’s ability to access justice is seriously impaired as their condition deteriorates to the point that they cannot impart satisfactory information to the judge,’ said FitzSimons.

“This is not an acceptable state of affairs but it is allowed to exist because there aren’t any deaths, so – the erroneous logic goes – why worry?” said FitzSimons. “I hope I’ve given you reasons why we, the independent observers, are worried. In short, the treatment of people should not be conditional on the likelihood of whether they will die or have died or have been beaten up. There are other more subtle nuances of poor treatment and access to justice is an important one.”

The Ministry of Justice said: “The report recognises that significant improvements have been made in the past year and we continue to work with our contractors to ensure safe and decent conditions are provided at all times.

“We carry out regular inspections to ensure all our contractors meet the high standards we expect.”

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