How lucky we are to live in a country where certain private citizens can walk into the custody suite of any of our police stations, without prior warning, at any time of day or night, to check on the welfare of anyone being held in the cells. This was the thought I came away with after spending a couple of hours visiting the police stations at Southend and Basildon in the company of an Independent Custody Visitor (ICV).
ICVs are unpaid volunteers who have no other direct connection with the criminal justice system. The scheme came about as a result of recommendations made by Lord Scarman in his report into the 1981 Brixton riots; initially voluntary, it was made mandatory across the UK under the Police Reform Act 2002. ICVs are concerned solely with the welfare of detainees, to ensure that they are being well treated, are adequately clothed and fed, understand why they have been detained, and have access to the legal and other advice to which they are entitled.
ICVs do not themselves provide advice, and in that way maintain their independence. They arrive unannounced, and have the same immediate physical access to the police station and its custody suite as any police officer. Once inside, they will check the current situation with the custody sergeant and, unless it is deemed unsafe to do so, may access any part of the suite unaccompanied, speaking to detainees in the cells and checking the facilities, from the showers to the kitchens to the store cupboards. We were there at five o’clock in the afternoon, but one o’clock in the morning seems to be a favourite time for an inspection. The aim is to visit each custody suite (at Basildon, Clacton, Colchester, Grays, Harlow and Southend – Chelmsford is currently closed while the station is being refurbished) about three times a month. This is achieved by a team of up to 17 volunteers.
The fact is that volunteers play an important part in every stage of the criminal justice system. Imagine, if you can, that you are a criminal and have been arrested. You may well have been arrested by a Special Constable, volunteers with the same police powers, uniforms and equipment as regular officers, but unpaid and, for the most part, putting in extra hours on top of their paid employment. Essex’s Special Constabulary is the second largest in the country and the fastest growing, with over 530 officers. If you are a young person or vulnerable adult and need supporting through the custody process, the police will arrange for an Appropriate Adult to come to the police station to help you – another volunteer, part of the Appropriate Adult Service run by Open Road. And, as we have seen, you may find yourself talking to an ICV.
If you are charged with an offence you will soon make an appearance in the Magistrates’ Court. Here you may be dealt with by a full-time professional District Judge sitting alone, but more likely by bench of three magistrates, unpaid volunteers, of whom there are about 300 in Essex (more needed!). All criminal cases start in the magistrates’ court, and about 95 per cent are completed there too. The rest, the more serious cases, go to the Crown Court, either for sentencing or trial. If there is a trial, the decision of guilt or innocence will be made by a jury of twelve citizens: not exactly volunteers, because jury service is an obligation from which one can only be excused in certain circumstances, but jurors are not paid, are selected randomly, and are untrained members of the general public. Magistrates are trained, but the fact remains that the outcome of all trials, whether in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court, is in the hands of people who are not professionals but are, theoretically at least, peers of the defendant.
Another group of volunteers play an important part in the trials process: members of the Witness Service, run by Citizens Advice. For most people, giving evidence in court is a nerve-wracking business, and Witness Service volunteers look after witnesses while they are at court, in rooms set aside for them, and explain the procedure; they will also arrange pre-trial visits to the court so that witnesses are familiar with the surroundings, and may sit with them in court while they are giving evidence.
Volunteers continue to play their part after sentencing. Young offenders (age 10–17) may receive a Referral Order, which involves sessions with a panel of volunteers who are committed to helping young people move away from offending. Other offenders may find themselves engaging with restorative justice, a process whereby victims of a crime have direct or indirect contact with the person responsible, via a volunteer facilitator. Conditions in prison and the welfare of prisoners are checked by volunteer members of the Independent Monitoring Board.
And so it goes on. That’s without beginning to list the many organisations, with their teams of volunteers, that help ex-offenders get back on their feet, find them places to live and work to do, and tackle problems associated with mental health and drug and alcohol dependency. The state of the criminal justice system leaves a lot to be desired, but there’s no doubt that it would be in very much worse condition without the thousands of volunteers across the country who work within it.