This year saw the opening of two £34.5m ‘super block’ custody suites to replace the traditional police station custody blocks across the West Midlands Police area.
They were unveiled by the new chief constable David Thompson with much fanfare. The local media were invited, as were solicitors – including me.
There is no doubt that the new buildings are impressively clean and modern. There is, however, a serious design flaw: the consultation rooms are out of the sight and hearing of the custody desk, which means that solicitors and representatives are told they have to be locked in rooms with clients for the duration of the consultation. This, we were informed by the force, was to avoid the risk of suspects roaming the block.
During my guided tour, I questioned the safety of this feature and what would happen to us in the event of an emergency. I was told that there was a red ‘panic alarm’ button inside the room that would immediately open the door.
Those of us who work at the coalface with the types of characters we have to consult with – many in the most stressful situation of their lives after being detained and often at strange hours of the day – will know that, should the worst happen, we are unlikely to have time to push a button to save ourselves.
Furthermore, any suspect so inclined would assess the situation, knowing we were locked in and prevent us from being able to activate the alarm.
I again raised my concerns formally with a senior officer, who told me the buildings were ‘Home-Office approved’ and that the panic alarm was a reasonable fail-safe.
In mid-August, one of the door locks did indeed mechanically fail, as did the panic alarm, leaving a solicitor and his client locked in. The fire brigade had to be called to release them.
The police force has obligations under section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which imposes a general duty on employers and the self-employed to persons other than their own employees (in this case including solicitors and legal representatives, and custody visitors) who may be at risk from their activities.
The section states: ‘It shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not exposed to risks to their health and safety.’
I have raised the section and my belief is that the force is in breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act. I await their response as to a satisfactory remedy.
I am enquiring as far and wide as I can about other people’s experiences and was horrified to read of a recent conviction. It it is of note that local press coverage of this episode failed to mention that the victim was locked in the room by the police.
I refuse to be locked in and urge anyone reading this to do the same. If the policy remains, it is only a matter of time before a more serious incident occurs. The police are placing financial considerations above the welfare of professionals.
Claire Riches, Glaisyers Solicitors, Birmingham