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Shropshire magistrates urged to step in over remand hearings switch

By Dominic Robertson | Crime | Published:

Shropshire's magistrates have been asked to intervene over a decision to move the county’s remand hearings to Kidderminster.

The county’s Defence Solicitors’ Association has written an open letter to Justices of the Peace outlining their concerns over the changes – including increased costs for the taxpayer.

The changes, introduced earlier this year, mean that anyone remanded in custody or who hands themselves in on a warrant or breach of bail, will have their case heard outside the county.

Because there is only one van which takes prisoners to Kidderminster for the hearings, people who surrender after about 7.30am are held in a cell until the next day.

The region’s police and crime commissioner John Campion also wants a rethink.

The solicitors’ association letter - which you can read in full below - states: “Every defence lawyer in Shropshire opposed the scheme and predicted that it would cause unnecessary expense for family members, extra expense to taxpayers for the additional costs of transportation, extra expense for the police in overnight ‘hotel’ accommodation for prisoners who were not put on the morning prison van and extra expense for the legal aid fund.

“These fears have all been borne out by our experience over this last month.”

John McMillan, one of the county’s most experienced defence advocates, described the situation as a shambles.

He said: "I am a full time advocate in court every day of the week and I can see what is going on and it is a complete mess, a complete waste of time, and a complete and utter waste of public money.

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"It is also a complete waste of police time because they are being paid to babysit prisoners for 24 hours."

Mr McMillan of White, McMillan and Bennett, said there is also a risk of people who breach bail being let off because they are not taken to court within the 24 hour time limit – something the Ministry of Justice has denied.

Defended

He said: "If it is a bail breach they have to bring you before a court within 24 hours of your arrest for it or release you and you have a couple of situations where people have been breached on bail, one where they took him down to Kidderminster but they could not get him on the bus and then when they got him there the next day they had to let him walk out."

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A spokesman for Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunal Service defended the changes.

He said: "We are investing over £1 billion to reform and modernise the justice system – to deliver swifter justice and provide better value for the taxpayer.

“Following a public consultation, remand cases were moved from Telford to Kidderminster Magistrates Court to improve listings and trial management at Telford.

“There is no evidence to suggest that there has been a significant increase in the numbers of defendants awaiting an available court, or that cases are not being heard within 24 hours.”

Police forced to ‘babysit’

The notice which has appeared at Worcester Police Station

The declining situation with remand courts in the region has been illustrated by a notice which has appeared on a police station.

The note advises criminals wanted for breach of bail conditions or on warrants, when to hand themselves in or they risk spending up to 24 hours in custody until the next bus can take them to a court hearing.

The situation has arisen after all remand hearings for the region were moved to Kidderminster.

It means one bus a day is sent from Telford Police Station to Kidderminster, at around 7.30am, to report to hearings.

If people hand themselves in to the police after that time then they are held in custody for up to 24 hours awaiting the next bus.

Local solicitors have said the changes are leading to police time being wasted “babysitting” people in the cells unnecessarily.

Police and Crime Commissioner for the region, John Campion, has been critical of the changes.

The notice, which has appeared at Worcester Police Station, which is also in the area covered by the changes, advises people “the best time to hand yourself in is between 10pm and 4am to enable transport arrangements to be made to Kidderminster”.

The notice explains that people who hand themselves in after the bus has gone will face extra time in the cells.

It states: “If you hand yourself in at Worcester Police Station after 6am for a court warrant you will have to wait in police detention until the following morning (24 hrs).”

Prisoner transport policy ‘in tatters’

An open letter from the Shropshire Defence Solicitors’ Association addresses Justices of the Peace about changes in court procedure:

"As defence solicitors practising in Shropshire we have been prevented by the civil servants of the Ministry of Justice from speaking to you about the new policy of transporting defendants from Shropshire magistrates courts to Worcestershire.

You have been warned off listening to us and fed the line that this policy has been a judicial decision. A judge was indeed involved in the discussions but it was wrong for this to be described as a judicial decision.

If a judge visits an Indian restaurant and has to choose between a korma and a vindaloo, he does not make a judicial decision. This was an administrative decision and it is just plain wrong. You took an oath when you became Justices of the Peace and we believe it is time someone pointed out to you what is being done in your name. We have taken a keen interest in the new arrangement which commenced in April by which prisoners detained in custody are now produced at Kidderminster Magistrates Court.

Every defence lawyer in Shropshire opposed the scheme and predicted that it would cause unnecessary expense for family members, extra expense to taxpayers for the additional costs of transportation, extra expense for the police in overnight ‘hotel’ accommodation for prisoners who were not put on the morning prison van and extra expense for defence lawyers and the legal aid fund. These fears have all been borne out by our experience over this last month. Whereas previously if a defendant was charged with an offence and was to be kept in custody to go to court, he could be walked to Telford court through the secure passage at any time between 10am and 3pm when the court was sitting.

Now, once the prison van has gone at about 7.30am, the prisoners are stuck because of this policy in Telford police station’s cells.

In addition records have been kept for Shropshire prisoners of the time between charge and a defendant appearing in court. These are only for some of the prisoners that we know about and there will be many more. Our figures show that during April prisoners were detained in Malinsgate police station in Telford for 225 hours longer than they would have been under the old system when they would simply have walked through the tunnel to Telford Court cells.

We believe this is a breach of S46 of The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 re bringing prisoners to court as soon as is practical. It clearly is practical to bring them through the passageway to a court that is sitting. Telford court sits every day.

Just because it suits the courts administrators, this should not mean that prisoners should be incarcerated for an extra 24 hours and more and transported to the next county. In addition our data records that many defendants further detained were then bailed out when they eventually appeared in Kidderminster and then at public expense had to get back to Shropshire with a rail travel warrant.

As well as the cost to the police, this policy effectively blocks the use of cells for other prisoners who may have been arrested.

We also have figures that show that on numerous occasions prisoners are being kept two to a cell and on occasions, three to a cell in Kidderminster Court. This is a disaster waiting to happen and you need to be aware of this.

We were told that no prisoners would be produced at Telford court. That policy crumbled almost as soon as it started. The position now seems to be that domestic violence protection order prisoners will be produced at Telford. Youth prisoners will be produced at Telford if there is a youth bench. In addition, prisoners who have arrived out of the blue have been dealt with and at last some common sense seems to be creeping in and Telford has dealt with the odd prisoner who has surrendered to an arrest warrant.

We have recorded instances when Kidderminster court has telephoned Shropshire police telling them not to send any more prisoners as they cannot cope.

The new system is in tatters. Instead of having three days purely for trials where there is no duty solicitor, other business has been in court on most of those “trial” days. There is no duty solicitor and dozens of cases have had to be adjourned to another day for defendants to get legal advice or representation by a duty solicitor on the two days when they, under the new regime, are allowed to operate.

In addition we still have three custody officers being paid to sit in the cells at Telford each day mainly at a loose end, who could more usefully deal with Telford prisoners coming over from Telford police station.

The Shropshire Community Mental Health Team who as The Criminal Justice Liaison Team in the period from October 2017 to February 2018 dealt with 53 people with mental health problems and attended Telford Magistrates Court to provide information and advice to the magistrates are now, since the start of this new scheme in April, unable to assist Shropshire prisoners appearing in Worcestershire as they are not part of the same NHS trust and there is no such arrangement in place at Kidderminster.

In addition we have discovered that the systems for assessing if a defendant is suitable for a drugs rehabilitation order is also different in the two counties. This has meant that the Kidderminster bench cannot make a drugs rehabilitation order on a defendant who will be residing in Shropshire. No doubt the powers that be did not even consider any of the above when they commenced this ill-conceived scheme.

We urge you to use your efforts to bring this nonsense to an end and to make your voices heard on what is being done to Shropshire citizens in your name."

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