Section 51: Independent custody visitors for places of detention
281.Custody visiting to police stations provides a means by which volunteers from the community who are independent of the police and the criminal justice system can inspect and report on the way in which arrested persons are dealt with by the police and the conditions in which they are held. Although it remains a little known feature of the criminal justice system, it is thought to have a vital role as the only fully independent check on the extent to which the rights of those individuals detained at police stations are being respected.
282.Custody visiting takes place already, through the voluntary application by police authorities of Home Office guidance. This section places custody visiting on a statutory basis, which will immediately raise the profile of the whole system. Custody visiting schemes in each police authority area will be mandatory rather than an optional requirement. A supporting code of practice will provide for consistent standards across England and Wales.
283.Subsection (1) of this section provides that each police authority in England and Wales will set up, administer and review the arrangements for independent custody visiting within their area.
284.Subsection (2) provides that police authorities, when recruiting, shall ensure that any volunteer appointed to become a custody visitor must be independent of the police authority and the chief officer of the relevant police force. This will ensure that there is no conflict of interest. For example, serving police authority members, serving police officers and support staff and special constables will not be eligible to apply until after they have left or retired from their current duties.
285.Subsection (3) covers the general powers considered necessary for custody visitors to carry out their functions. For example, the custody visitor should have access to the custody suite where detainees are kept and the food preparation area if that is separate to the custody suite.
286.Subsection (4) enables the police to refuse a custody visit to a specific detainee in limited circumstances and with the authority of an officer of at least inspector rank. The grounds need to be grounds already specified in the arrangements regarding independent custody visiting made by the police authority, and procedures regarding denial of access must be followed. Under subsection (5) the grounds must also be amongst those set out in the Secretary of State’s code of practice referred to in subsection (6). Such grounds may, for example, refer to a reasonable belief that a visit would have adverse consequences such as interference with evidence or other suspects being alerted.
287.Subsection (6) requires the Secretary of State to issue (and permits him from time to time to revise) a code of practice regulating independent custody visiting, to which police authorities and independent custody visitors must, under subsection (9), have regard. This will help to ensure consistent standards across England and Wales. It also permits the Secretary of State to modify the code if necessary. Subsection (7) requires the Secretary of State, before issuing or revising a code of practice, to consult those whom he considers represent the interests of police authorities and chief officers of police. Where this formulation occurs in existing legislation, the Secretary of State currently consults the APA and ACPO and/or CPOSA. The Secretary of State may also consult anyone else he chooses. The Secretary of State must lay any codes or revisions of codes issued under this section before Parliament (subsection (8)).