I have recently been conducting research into police station legal advice. While this important topic was the subject of much research during the 1980s and 1990s, very little has been published on the subject for over a decade. In 2008, a survey with over 1,000 people in the criminal justice system was conducted for the LSRC. This led to the identification of potential barriers to legal advice.

To examine some of these issues further, I ran a small-scale study which included observations in eight custody suites, two of which were based in London. A number of potential obstacles to legal advice were identified, particularly relating to delays. Factors included the police sometimes being too busy to answer the phone, and solicitors left at the front desk for long periods of time, waiting to be escorted into the custody suite.

With no alternative arrangements for solicitors to access police custody, the ensuing delays were found to discourage some suspects from requesting legal advice and others, who initially asked for a solicitor, to later change their minds. These findings are discussed in my report, ?Transforming Legal Aid: Access to Criminal Defence Solicitors?, which is available over the internet.

Larger study

I have also conducted research using 30,000 police electronic custody records from four police force areas ? 44 police stations in all. These areas were self-selecting, as a request had been made to 17 police forces and these four, which do not include any London police stations, agreed to provide the data.

Overall, 45% of detainees were found to request legal advice, an increase on the 40% identified in the last large-scale study, based on custody records from the mid-1990s. As in the 1997 study, there were found to be wide variations in request rates, ranging from 32% in one police station to 62% in another.

Analysis of the quantitative records helped to identify how different factors, particularly the seriousness of the offence, but also the age, gender and ethnicity of suspects, can influence requests for legal advice. 

To explore other factors which might influence people?s decisions about having a solicitor, further research was carried out at the main police station in each of these four areas. This included observation of the custody suites and interviews with a total of 50 custody sergeants. The stations all had a high volume of cases: over a two-month period in 2009, the numbers ranged from 1,500 to 2,500. Requests for legal advice in these four stations ranged from 41% to 62%, and the extent to which those who had requested a solicitor actually received legal advice varied from 68% to 91%. The length of time suspects were held in custody was also seen to vary between police stations, with an average of eight hours in one police station rising to just under twelve hours in another. There was also noted to be a difference in time suspects spent in detention depending on whether or not legal advice had been requested, ranging from two hours and 50 minutes difference in one police station to five hours in another.

Four factors

Analysis of the data from interviews with custody sergeants suggested that four key factors affected the take-up of legal advice.

Delays

All custody sergeants referred to long delays in the pre-charge process as the main reason why they thought people declined legal advice. Most felt that the police investigation was the main cause of the delays, while many also referred to cases taking longer since the CPS had
become involved in pre-charge decision-making. The majority of custody sergeants felt that it was also due to long delays that some suspects changed their minds about having legal advice.

Pressure on the police to increase detections

While the national target to bring more offences to justice was withdrawn in 2010, this has been taken on as a local target by these four police forces. There were strong complaints, made by some custody sergeants in all four stations, that this target was putting the police under pressure to concentrate on the quantity rather than the quality of arrests. With the police under pressure to increase detections, there were also concerns raised that this was leading to due process safeguards being undermined. This included complaints that some police investigators discouraged suspects from having legal advice, and that legal advisers had been excluded from entering into the custody suite in two police stations.

Attitudes towards legal advice

Custody sergeants are required to be ?impartial? when reading suspects their legal rights, but it was evident from interviews and observations of the custody suites that they do have discretion, particularly when dealing with those who are unsure or confused about what  to do. For those with a more positive attitude towards legal advice, such discretion meant they could be more ?encouraging?, while it was noted that others had subtle ways of discouraging access to legal advice.

Access to defence practitioners

There were problems identified for solicitors contacting the police, and also gaining access to custody suites, although such problems varied between the four police stations. For custody sergeants, a common complaint made against defence practitioners was the tendency of some to take on a number of cases, which could then lead to delays if the police were ready to interview suspects but the solicitor was not available. While some custody sergeants appreciated the difficulties for solicitors who could be kept waiting for many hours prior to the police interview, otherstended to blame the solicitors for causing delays by taking on too many cases.

Marginalisation of legal advisers

A key theme emerging from my work in police stations is the increasing marginalisation of legal advisers from the pre-charge process. This is not only in relation to problems gaining physical access to police custody, but also in relation to obtaining information concerning the client?s case, and when seeking to make representations to the police.

In seeking to address some of the issues identified above, the LSRC is continuing its work on police station legal advice, which includes a project involving duty solicitors based onsite in a busy city
centre police station.

Vicky Kemp is a Principal Researcher with the Legal Services Research Centre.

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