Courts chaos: Solicitors' group calls for urgent action in open letter

The court system is failing says solicitor John McMillan, co-chairman of The Shropshire Defence Advocates Group, in this open letter to the Judicial Business Group, which is responsible for the organisation of courts in our region.

John McMillan
John McMillan

"Dear Sirs,

Having consulted with the members of the Shropshire Defence Advocates Group representing Shropshire law firms involved in criminal legal aid cases, we ask the Judicial Business Group to hold a formal review of the present centralised remand court at Kidderminster which clearly is not working. Our chief areas of concern are detailed below.

Prisoners being detained in custody for longer under this new system:

We have raised this concern by email, verbally with court staff, the Ministry of Justice, magistrates and in the press and it has fallen on deaf ears. None of our members attended the last court users meeting because our concerns were dismissed at the previous meeting.

At that meeting there were no figures available but we were assured that things were little different now than they were under the old system when Shropshire prisoners walked through the secure tunnel from Telford Police Station to Telford Magistrates Court. We knew this was wrong but wanted clarity to put matters beyond doubt. No data could be made available and so made a Freedom of Information application.

We were of course aware that even under the old system, if a defendant was charged, or arrested on a warrant in the late afternoon or evening he would have to wait for the court the following morning. However it was those who were arrested or charged who could have been taken over to court when it was sitting next door, except for this policy decision that concerned us. And make no mistake about it, Shropshire Magistrates Court sits every day, fully staffed, with the largest and safest cell block always manned and ready to receive prisoners.

We therefore requested figures for those charged or arrested between 7.30am and 2.30pm, Monday to Saturday under the FOI procedure. The results show a travesty of justice for non-convicted detainees.

Cell Security:

We have asked for sight of the risk assessment that was carried out during the original consultation process regarding the cells at Kidderminster and have not been supplied with one. We draw the conclusion that none was done.

There have now been two violent incidents in the cell area since April which has inadequate safeguarding compared to that which exists at Telford. In the Telford court cells are two secure interview rooms where the solicitor, probation officer or whoever, can be placed in a separate small room adjacent to the holding cell where the defendant is placed and can communicate privately with the defendant through a safety glass screen. In Kidderminster no such facility exists. The visitor is locked in the same room as the defendant and if there is violence it is then up to the cell staff to unlock the room and intervene.

At present one of the Kidderminster interview rooms is out of order having been wrecked on September 19 by a violent outburst where a prisoner ripped the electric clock from the wall, violently kicked the security glass window, breaking it and in a sustained attack, kicked the security locked door open and luckily exited into the cell reception area leaving his lawyer extremely shaken, but not physically hurt. That was reported to the court authorities and nothing has been done about it.

On Friday October 26 there was another attack involving a female youth offending officer who was again locked in with a defendant who this time spat in her face, with all the potential consequences that can have.

Late night sittings:

There have been many occasions since April when the remand court has not finished at a reasonable time. There are many reasons for it. Sometimes the remand court has not just been a remand court but has had other mixed court business in it. At other times the clerk is unable to keep up with the resulting work on the computer and cases are kept back to allow that to be done, on other occasions the court papers have just not been available or prisoners have not been delivered on time.

We know that the court has sat as late as 10pm and on October 4 there was only one remand court sitting and by 4.15pm it had only dealt with four of the fourteen prisoners.

A Shropshire lawyer finally got out at about 8.30pm to begin his one hour drive home. Not only is this not efficient, it is not fair on the cell staff, the court security staff or the lawyers and court staff who leave for work in the morning and have not got a clue when they will be coming home.

Lack of public transport:

Shropshire is the largest inland county in England and lawyers, defendants and family members are expected to be able to travel to and from Kidderminster. There is no direct transport link from Shrewsbury or Telford which are the two biggest towns and from the rural areas such as Ludlow or Oswestry it can prove impossible to get back on the same day.

The arrangement of having all custody cases at Kidderminster is dangerous and it is clear HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has not carried out a risk assessment. In particular it seems that no regard has been given to how defendants will be able to get home safely once they are released on bail.

This became clear on Thursday October 4 when a defendant represented by Brendan Reedy of PCB solicitors was released by the bench on bail. The case was not heard until 7.45pm. The defendant lives between Minsterley and Bishops Castle in Shropshire. Although the gaolers provided the defendant with a travel warrant, this only enabled him to catch a train from Kidderminster to Shrewsbury via Birmingham. He arrived in Shrewsbury at 12.50am (ten to one in the morning) and then his problems really began as he could not catch the bus to Minsterley because the last bus left at 6.05am. He was forced to walk 12 miles on the A488 an unlit main road with no pavement for most of the 12 miles he had to walk. The walk took him four hours. HMCTS have given no consideration to the risks of those defendants who do not live in towns with a railway station nor have they given any consideration of what clothing people are arrested in.

It frequently is not suitable for walking long distances in wet and cold conditions. In the event of a road traffic collision leading to death or injury HMCTS would have to bear responsibility as it would in the event of the risk of death or injury through hypothermia.

Defendants with mental health problems:

From the information obtained from the police under the FOI disclosure 68 defendants disclosed they had mental health issues.

Kidderminster court is not covered by a community mental health team. Previously at Telford there were regularly members of the Shropshire Criminal Justice Mental Health Team available for defendants in Telford court. We know that between October 2017 and February of this year they attended Telford Court to assist with 53 defendants. That is a valuable resource that is no longer being used and those who suffer as a result are amongst the most vulnerable in society.

The misleading impression that Telford trial times are now improved because of the remand system:

At each meeting our members have had with the court authorities we are told that the lead time for trials in Telford Magistrates Court has improved as a result of the lack of remand prisoners.

We accept there is some truth in that, but the major factor has been that a Trial Blitz was instigated at Telford with extra courts sitting with District Judges to get rid of the backlog. That and the fact that fewer cases are coming through is the main factor for the improved trials performance at Telford.

The dogmatic approach taken by the court staff:

When this new regime was imposed it was quickly realised by the police that they were going to be providing bed and breakfast cell accommodation for persons arrested on warrants.

That prompted Worcester police to pin the now infamous notice given publicity on May 13 advising that " if people wanted on warrant handed themselves in after 6am they would have to wait in police detention until the following morning 24 hours".

A short time later we received an email from the Deputy Justices' Clerk saying that if a defendant wished to surrender to a warrant, he could do that at court and provided the court was able to fit it in at some point on that day, it could be dealt with. This has now happened many times and those wanted on warrant have been dealt with at Telford without having to be taken into custody. There has never been a problem.

We ask if this concession can be made, why can those who are arrested and taken to Telford police station not be produced in Telford court? Its a simple matter of a phone call and could save time, money and grief. The only thing standing in the way is the dogmatic approach.

The waste of time and money on Drug Rehabilitation Requirements (DRRs):

Since the new remand pattern commenced in April, whenever Kidderminster magistrates wish to consider sentencing a Shropshire prisoner to a community Order with a Drug Rehabilitation Requirement they have had to send that defendant back to be sentenced in Shropshire because we are told, the DRR assessors work in a different way in Worcestershire from those in Shropshire!

The upshot of this is that for the last seven7 months EVERY defendant who has a drugs problem that the court wishes to tackle has to be sent back to Shropshire Magistrates Court. So just to reinforce the ludicrousness of this situation – a drug dependant defendant in Shropshire may have to wait for 24 hours to be taken to Kidderminster, only to be sent back the next day to Shropshire!

The way forward:

Our members would like to see Shropshire prisoners being dealt with in the Shropshire court. The problems with this amalgamation generally come from Shropshire and we can see that a Hereford and Worcester amalgamation at Kidderminster or Worcester would work. Simply take us out of the mix.

In terms of the next steps we would like to inform you that we are totally in approval of the proposed virtual court trial that we understand may include Shropshire and we will do everything we can to cooperate and make that a success.

John McMillan, SolicitorCo-chair, The Shropshire Defence Advocates Group"

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