It’s been a while since I have been in custody, but it feels right and proper that ICVA visit custody now as many of the ICVs have been doing throughout Covid or are returning to doing so. Our Chief Exec, Katie, has also recently been into custody, her blog focusses on the changes and challenges arising from the pandemic and how custody has reacted to it. DCC Nev Kemp has also written a guest blog for ICVA reflecting on how custody has responded and to thank ICVs.
So then, on this visit and in this blog, I wanted to investigate a slightly different angle of the changes to custody, specifically that of Video Enabled Justice (VEJ). VEJ is used in police custody to hold Virtual Remand Hearings (VRH). Whilst some areas and police custody suites already had VEJ in place, this has vastly increased nationally since the beginning of the pandemic.
What does VEJ mean? Well, it means that detainees stay in the police custody suite physically and ‘attend’ court via a live video link. This means that a detainee can be arrested, interviewed, charged and remanded to prison without ever leaving the police station. Detainees will have their hearings in a room which has the technology for a two-way live link to the relevant court and court officials for their case. This is different as detainees would usually be physically transferred to court cells, appear in person in front of the court and then, if remanded, be transported to the relevant prison.
ICVA has written to the Minister for Policing, Kit Malthouse to reflect the concerns reported to us from independent custody visiting schemes across England and Wales. These concerns are (in the main) that the VEJ process leads to longer wait times for detainees and place a large amount of additional pressure on custody staff to undertake all of their normal duties and run a virtual court simultaneously. Our media centrepage has all of the overviews of scheme feedback we have received if you would like to know more detail on this. Schemes have been reporting to us on this, so we thought it was important to speak to custody staff too.
So off I toddled to custody on Saturday evening. I had a chance to see the virtual courtroom, and to have a chat with staff members and the ICVs on their observations of how the process is working. There isn’t much to say about the courtroom itself, other than that it’s a repurposed interview room, so not enormous by any stretch of the imagination and without windows. There is a chair for the detainee to sit at facing the screen, and a court emblem on the wall behind them. Detainees are given a leaflet as to how the court will work, which lets them know that there isn’t a choice as to whether they attend court in this way or not, but that if they don’t feel the video link is suitable for them should tell the police. The leaflet also lets detainees/defendants know that there may be a virtual public gallery – which you all may have known, but I have to confess it wasn’t something I had thought of at all!
We have all gotten used to attending things remotely over the past few months, and so VEJ could seem like a natural progression from this, but there are undoubtedly issues. To run the virtual courts, police custody needs to staff the court and may have extra detainees, who normally would be in court custody cells, increasing overall detainee numbers in the suite. Initially, with the lack of night-time economy many custody suites were quieter, but as lockdown has eased and warrants have been acted upon custody numbers have, ICVA hears, returned to normal capacity in most areas.
ICVA has received quite a few reports concerning this additional pressure on staff and was borne out in my discussions in custody with both police staff and ICVs at the weekend. The concerns received from independent custody visiting schemes are that with the additional responsibilities and more detainees in the suite for longer, that detainee care could/is impacted. The impacts of this could be things like less time spent talking with vulnerable detainees, less time for entitlements and individual care like giving distraction materials, fresh air and exercise and access to showers. These are all things that do take up staff time and contribute to a well-run, detainee focussed suite.
Staff members said that in their experience, at the suite I visited, there weren’t any problems with transport to prison for those who are remanded, but that there were often lengthy delays with the courts, meaning detainees were waiting longer in cells before appearing court and either being remanded or released. ICVA has received reports from other schemes as to delays with transport, meaning lengthier stays in police custody for detainees who are remanded, an environment specifically designed for a short stay of detention. These stays, alongside the staffing of the court, and ‘business as usual’ all make for busier suites.
This all paints a very negative picture of VEJ in custody, are there any upsides I hear you say? Well, one of the members of staff pointed out that they wouldn’t want to get rid of the ability to use VEJ totally, and I, nosey as always, asked why this was. They pointed out that if someone had charges to go to court for in another part of the country, being able to appear on a live link instead of hours in detainee transport would be an upside for the detainee and the force. The detainee doesn’t have to spend several hours in a van, and it is less costly for the criminal justice system for what might be a fairly straightforward matter, a valid point.
So, let’s see what happens with VEJ as life in custody returns almost to normal. We know that the Home Office, National Police Chiefs Council and Ministry of Justice are all working on this area. ICVA will continue to raise issues with the Home Office and our stakeholders as they arise from schemes and we will watch this space with interest…