There has been recent press coverage of the move to commission criminal justice liaison and diversion services, with mental health nurses beginning to be located in police custody suites. In fact, the role of liaison and diversion services is wider than this, including the provision of support in magistrates’, youth and, eventually, Crown courts, as well.

This article attempts to set out what liaison and diversion services intend to achieve, to operate, and what this might mean for defence practitioners.

The stated aim of liaison and diversion is to reduce reoffending by providing a gateway into support and treatment for those who appear to have a mental illness, learning disability or appear to be abusing drugs or alcohol, at the early stages of the criminal justice process. There is a well-recognised problem that many people with these vulnerabilities are only formally diagnosed once they reach prison or a young offender institution.

There is also clear evidence that the incidence of these issues is much higher in the offending population compared with the general population. By intervening earlier, it is hoped that their health problems can be treated and their offending behaviour modified.

The main health commissioning body for England, NHS England, is starting to roll out new services which base mental health practitioners in police custody suites and in court buildings, with a presence at times of peak need, including evenings and weekends. This is an improvement over some of the existing liaison and diversion services with which some defence practitioners will be familiar, which often only provided support during limited times.

NHS England intends to roll out this more comprehensive service to every custody suite and every court in the country. The bad news is that it will take until 2017, and it will not cover Wales. However, almost a quarter of the population of England is covered by the new services from April this year, with plans to expand coverage to half the population by this time next year.

In the 10 trial scheme areas where these services are now operating, liaison and diversion workers, who consist of mental health nurses, learning disability specialists and unqualified support workers, are based in police custody and court buildings. They are given access to clients where it has been identified that mental health, learning disability or substance misuse is a factor in the suspect’s presentation.

A defence practitioner can request the intervention of the L&D service if they believe that their client is vulnerable and that this has previously been missed by police custody or court personnel. A screening of the individual, with their consent, is undertaken. Where the need for a professional diagnosis is indicated, a specialist can be brought in to undertake more formal assessment, and referrals for treatment or support for a wide range of vulnerabilities can be made.

These may include social, as well as health, interventions: services are linking up with various stakeholders to provide a referral pathway, for example, with troubled families units, and accommodation services.

The liaison and diversion intervention results in a written report, which is intended to be used to inform charging decisions (in the case of police custody), or to inform case management/sentencing/disposal by the court, subject to the client’s consent at each stage of the justice process.

Anecdotally, this approach has helped to identify opportunities where the police can make conditional cautions, such as referral into treatment. Liaison and diversion has also proved popular with the bench, with some magistrates citing a reduction in delays awaiting full reports and the associated, unnecessary episodes of remand.

The potential to reduce the use of custodial sentences, especially where that provides a greater chance of meeting clients’ health and social needs, will undoubtedly be welcomed by many in the defence practitioner community. A further benefit will be the early identification of the needs of a defendant to effectively participate in the trial process.

This, together with the prospect of a more complete picture of the client’s circumstances, may encourage defence practitioners to seek more information from their local liaison and diversion service provider. Where these services exist, police custody sergeants and HM Courts & Tribunals Service staff will be able to signpost appropriately.

Kate Davies, head of public health, armed forces and their families, and health and justice commissioning for NHS England, has said: ‘Liaison and diversion services mark an achievement in providing better healthcare and support for those who need it the most in the youth and adult justice services. All vulnerable people in contact with police or courts will in future receive a level of support that will enable them to participate in the justice process.

‘The 10 schemes trialling the new model have started to make this change so that vulnerable people can receive the treatment and support that they desperately need.’

  • The Law Society, in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust, will hold an awareness-raising event on liaison and diversion services on 15 October. For further information about the event or if you wish to register, please go to the Events page of the Law Society website.

Richard Atkinson is chair of the Law Society Criminal Law Committee