A report by the Council of Europe has highlighted an 'unacceptable' lack of respect for lawyer-client confidentiality in some UK police stations.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), part of the 47-nation council, visited various establishments, including six police stations, from 30 March to 12 April last year.
Publishing its findings and recommendations today, the committee delegation noted a lack of respect for lawyer-client confidentiality by telephone.
The report states: 'At the [Terrorism Act] suite at Southwark Police Station and at Doncaster Police Station, the delegation observed that such consultations in practice took place at a wall-mounted telephone in an area where police officers freely circulated and that was subject to audio and visual recording; this is not acceptable.
'At Southwark... while this had been identified as a problem by custody sergeants, the mobile phone bought to replace the wall-mounted phone (located under a microphone) did not have reception and had not been used since its purchase four months previously.'
The committee says the relevant police authorities, in a letter dated 28 June 2016, 'underline that they plan to ensure that each custody suite has at least a privacy hood over the telephone that is used for detainees to speak with their lawyer'.
Meanwhile, 'in the interests of due process and as a fundamental safeguard against ill-treatment', the CPT recommends that 'relevant and effective' measures are taken to protect the confidentiality of lawyer-client consultations by telephone in Southwark and Doncaster police stations, as well as in other police stations across the country.
The committee was set up under the Council of Europe's 'European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment', which came into force in 1989. It is not an investigative body but provides a non-judicial mechanism to protect those deprived of their liberty against torture and ill treatment, complementing the work of the European Court of Human Rights.
In today's report, the committee found that some of those held at Charing Cross and Brixton police stations potentially faced up to a two-hour wait after arriving at the police station in holding rooms before detention was formally authorised and they were given their rights.
The report says: 'The CPT considers that detainees inherently have their rights from the moment of apprehension and that police officers have a duty to inform them of those rights at the earliest opportunity, and to provide detained persons with written information immediately upon their arrival at the police station.'
The committee expressed concern about the 'protection vacuum' created by the wait, 'during which a person could be physically held on police premises and investigative steps could proceed despite the fact they have not been informed of their rights'.
The committee also observed some instances where no proper record was made of the fact that the person had been informed of their rights.
'For example, at Charing Cross some of the "digi-pads" used to collect the electronic signatures of detainees were defective, resulting in a number of detainees' records showing up as "incapable of signing for their rights",' the report states.
In Doncaster Police Station, 'video screens designed to mirror the information on rights available to custody sergeants on the detainees' side of the counter were not systematically being used, resulting in some detained persons being asked to sign "blind" to the actual content. Understandably, some declined to do so.'
While some detainees interviewed by the delegation had been given written information of their rights, many had not, the committee said.
'By letter dated 28 June 2016 the authorities underline that informing detainees of their rights, as from the point of arrest, is challenging in practice; for example, all requests for legal advice are made through the Defence Solicitor Call Centre and require certain information, such as the custody number, which is only available after the booking in process had started,' the report states.
The committee recommends that UK authorities take measures to ensure, 'without further delay', that all police station detainees are fully informed of their fundamental rights 'from the very outset' of their deprivation of liberty - from the moment they are obliged to remain with the police.
Defective digi-pads and screens should be fixed, the committee recommends. They should also have various language options to ensure detainees fully understand their rights and what they are signing for, it adds.
On a positive note, despite the ‘notable exceptions’, the committee says safeguards including access to a lawyer are ‘being afforded’ by the police correctly. The CPT’s delegation was ‘pleased to observe’ that access to a lawyer was generally being facilitated promptly and detainees were being offered access to legal advice before they were interviewed by the police.
‘Moreover, the duty solicitor scheme appeared to operate smoothly and many detained persons interviewed had benefited from free legal advice,’ the report adds.
The Metropolitan Police Service told the Gazette it is ‘committed to continually improving its custody performance, especially concerning the treatment and care of detainees, including the monitoring of waiting and overall detention times’.
It added: ‘The safeguarding of rights and entitlements, and the health and wellbeing of people in custody are key priorities and the Met will continue to ensure we uphold our obligations and provide a safe and appropriate environment for those who come into our detention with healthcare professionals working in all our custody suites.
‘The MPS welcomed this external review by the committee and for its observations and recommendations to which we have fully responded to and actioned.
‘In relation to the specific points raised it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.’
South Yorkshire Police has been approached for comment.