In the Media

Cell etiqu ette — the dangers of the human touch in police cells

PUBLISHED November 30, 1994

An area of police station work which has received a considerable amount of attention is the vulnerability of defence solicitors to assault from violent clients. What seems to have attracted almost no attention, however, is the need to protect clients from their legal advisers - not from physical assault, but from behaviour which may be inappropriate or which could be misconstrued.

Is it ever appropriate, for instance, to try physically to comfort a distressed client in a police cell? Could hugging a crying child be misinterpreted? Although it now seems routine for other professionals, like teachers, to have guidelines on the dangers of, say, sitting children on their knees, solicitors are given no formal advice on how they should deal with a weeping or hysterical client.

Yet the consequences of getting it wrong can be potentially disastrous. Bournemouth-based David Powis is one criminal solicitor who is only too aware of the dangers.

He found himself facing two charges of indecent assault - both subsequently dropped.

One related to a 21-year-old female client he had interviewed at the police station.

He insists that he had simply tried to comfort her because 'she had become very distressed and was weeping'. Mr Powis maintains that the assault charges were brought in retaliation because the police disliked his interventionist style of defence.

His experience shows how an inappropriate gesture, even if it is well-intentioned, can potentially add to a client's distress, and also leave the solicitor vulnerable to damaging accusations. In a written statement made following the accusations, he describes what he claims happened: 'Most of the time [the client] was smoking her cigarette, but she put it out and offered her head towards me.

I put an arm round her to comfort her.

This was only a momentary gesture.' Yet this 'momentary gesture' was to cost him his practice and led to his spending two months in prison.

Despite this, Mr Powis defends his behaviour. 'I behaved like a human being.

I am not one of those people who suppresses my humanity just because I am a solicitor.

I know that the received wisdom now is that you should be absolutely hands off with people, but I am not like that.' And it is not just middle-aged solicitors who need to be careful about their behaviour towards young women clients, according to Stephen Gilchrist, former chair of the Legal Aid Practitioner's Group. Several years ago he was interviewing a male client - whom he describes as 'very vulnerable and I think rather simple as well' - who was charged with minor indecent assault.

'He was very upset about it all.

I put my hand on his shoulder momentarily and he started yelling rape,' says Mr Gilchrist.

Luckily, in this case, the matter did not go any further.

But it has served to convince Mr Gilchrist of the need for all defence solicitors to tread carefully in this area. He thinks some broad advice from the Law Society would be helpful.

'I think it should be general guidance, rather than a strict code of conduct.

Perhaps there should be some sort of short training course on client relationships, looking at ethical situations.' He accepts that it is difficult to draw up guidelines to cope with every kind of situation (although, that does not appear to stop the Society trying in other areas) but believes that a training course which asked solicitors to think through their responses to given, hypothetical situations would be useful. However, there does not appear to be much support yet at the Society for such an idea.

Both Roger Ede, secretary to the criminal law committee, and Eric Shepherd, a forensic psychologist who helped create the Society's police station skills training kit, say that it is unnecessary. Mr Ede says: 'It would be very difficult to put out guidance.

People do not want to be told how to behave in relation to their clients.

People like to be themselves.' Dr Shepherd says: 'This is an area where you have to rely on solicitors' common sense.' In their own behaviour, however, both would insist on very strict boundaries between client and solicitor.

Dr Shepherd says: 'I cannot think of any instance in which it would be wise to engage in touching someone - not even a child.

I sense you would find very little support out there for anyone saying, "I put an arm round, I held a hand."' 'I would never hug an upset female criminal client in a cell.

I would not dream of it.

I would say a few comforting words; ask if she wanted a cup of tea,' says Mr Ede, who was, himself, a criminal solicitor for many years.

Yet, despite their own hard and fast rules, there is no need for any general guidance to practitioners making these points, they say. Dr Shepherd says that practitioners should keep at the forefront of their minds the fact that theirs is a solely professional relationship with the client.

They are there solely to give legal advice. But solicitors insist that it is not always easy to draw a line between sorting out a client's legal problems and sorting out other aspects of their life.

When the lines will inevitably be blurred, there may be a need for thought-through general advice about what level of involvement is appropriate - and what are the potential dangers. Mr Gilchrist agrees that there can be problems with boundaries.

'We are trying to sort people out.

We get them into drug rehab, sort out their housing benefit.

The solicitor can be drawn into a much wider area of counselling and help.' This level of involvement is routine.

A busy high street practitioner told me last week: 'A client of mine killed his wife on Wednesday.

I have sorted out everything for him apart from someone to look after the family cat.'