POLITICAL POSTURING ON THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
The country must be heading for a general election soon as the political rhetoric is being ramped up.
A recent example is the politicising of the rights or wrongs of non-appearance at court for sentencing, particularly in high-profile cases. It appears that everyone has a view on this including so-called experts who don’t, and have never, worked in the criminal justice system.
In my view, it is quite wrong for leading politicians of all parties to attempt to score political points off each other as to who can be the toughest on crime and stating that they will bring in tough legislation to ensure that it is mandatory to appear in the dock for sentencing.
THERE IS NO NEED FOR NEW LEGISLATION
I gave an interview on SKY News (21st August 2023) about what currently happens when a prisoner refuses to attend court. The POA does not have a policy on this issue but as the largest, recognised and respected trade union for Prison Officers, OSGs and related grades, it is inevitable that the media will contact us for our views. I made clear that it was wrong to make political capital from the case highlighted and that the most important people in all of this were not politicians or so-called experts. The most important people are and always will be the victim and the victims’ families.
THE CURRENT POSITION WHEN A PRISONER REFUSES TO GO TO COURT
Only the court can decide if a prisoner is required to attend court for criminal proceedings in which they are the defendant. If a prisoner refuses to attend court, the following occurs:
- The court is advised of the refusal as quickly as possible, and the court is asked whether the attendance of the prisoner is necessary
- If the court advises that the prisoner must attend, the court is advised that the prisoner may need to be brought to court by force if deemed necessary
- All attempts to persuade the prisoner to attend court are made and the prisoner is given a direct order to attend court.
- Prison Officers and related grades are experienced in noncompliance but, given the success rate of attendance at court, I would suggest it is the norm that the majority of prisoners do attend. A tiny minority, for whatever reason, may not comply and when that occurs, and the court is adamant that they should attend and the use of force is necessary, then the following protocol exists.
USE OF FORCE
A court has no legal right to direct a Prison Officer or a Governor to use force to compel a prisoner to attend court but force may be used to get a prisoner to court providing the following is adhered to:
- The court has confirmed the prisoner must attend court
- All reasonable options to persuade a prisoner to attend court have been exhausted and the use of force is a last resort.
- Using force will only be justified, and therefore lawful, if it is necessary, reasonable, and proportionate to the seriousness of the circumstances, in line with Prison Service Order 1600
- The decision about whether to use force is taken by the Officers in place at the time, following direction by a senior manager, to ensure compliance with the lawful order of prison staff to move to the escort vehicle; the decision to use force must be recorded.
It is worth noting that the use of force cannot be used in all cases. For example, there may be individual cases where defendants have suicidal tendencies or medical conditions where a doctor has deemed the individual is medically unfit to travel. In these cases, the court would be advised accordingly.
DISCUSSION BETWEEN THE COURT AND PRISON
It is likely ongoing discussions will take place between the court and prison regarding welfare issues, risks to security and non-compliance when the individual reaches court under restraint. But ultimately it will be for the court to decide whether someone appears or not. The narrative appears to be that prisoners themselves will determine whether they appear or not and that should not arise as rightly the British public want justice to be served. Part of that process is listening to the victim impact assessment. As stated in this article already this country needs to ensure that victims of crime come before anything else. Prisoners in the care of HMPPS should always be treated with care, humanity and compassion but not at the expense of the victims and their families and as stated this is not the time for political point scoring but ensuring support for the courts and our justice system and the victims of crime. Nobody has suggested that the answers are easy in respect of this debate, but one thing is for sure the British public are clearly concerned as are the media given the inquiries that the POA has had on this subject matter.
In conclusion I hope this article demonstrates that courts already have the power to insist that prisoners attend court and that protocols are already in place, and we do not need further legislation which in my view will only complicate the issue. The reality is Politicians of all parties should be concentrating on making our justice system better and that is why the POA are calling for a Royal Commission to ensure we have a justice system that is properly funded, resourced at every level to have a criminal justice system that everyone has confidence in. Political rhetoric is easy for a quick headline, but quick headlines have never worked. Proper planning with effective policies and public confidence are the only way forward. Political parties will never get the support of the POA on political soundbites as we have heard it all before and are tired of being used as a political football. Remember for every political decision that is made there are consequences, and it is hard working POA members that are left to pick up the pieces from politicians ill thought out political pledges. l