Inspectors find quality of court custody facilities in some NI courthouses ‘not fit for purpose'.


A new report by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) examining how detainees are held in court custody in Northern Ireland has found the quality of court custody areas in some courthouses are not fit for purpose.

Inspectors identified that while there had been significant investment by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) to fund modernisation programmes, some issues were impossible to rectify within the existing courthouse buildings, some of which were centuries old.

“This inspection found while some courthouses provide suitable layouts, with sufficient cells of a reasonable size and were in a good state of repair, others suffered a range of problems experienced by detainees relating to temperature, lack of natural light or ventilation, a lack of running water, cramped conditions and insufficient space to have separate areas for booking-in detainees, storage, office space and staff facilities,” said Jacqui Durkin, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.

“They were built in an era when the standards of accommodation for holding people accused of criminal offences were very different, however, they are still in use today,” she said. 

While an attempt to close courthouses considered unsuitable or under utilised was halted following legal proceedings in 2016, Inspectors believe that action is still required to ensure the current court custody estate is fit for purpose.

“We have recommended that an assessment of current court custody facilities and areas for escorting detainees is undertaken against the Expectations and indicators used by Inspectors to carry out this Inspection. 

“During the COVID-19 pandemic significantly fewer detainees were required to appear in person at court and the benefits of appearing by video link were realised.  The potential to sustain these arrangements and reduce the detention of adults and young people in unsuitable courthouse cell accommodation could be explored,” said the Chief Inspector.

The report found that staff from the Northern Ireland Prison Service Prisoner Escorting and Court Custody Service (PECCS), who were responsible for both transporting prisoners and young people to and from prison or the Juvenile Justice Centre and their treatment and care while in court custody, treated detainees respectfully and with dignity.

Inspectors found PECCS staff showed an understanding of the potentially stressful nature of the court environment and demonstrated an awareness of the needs of detainees, particularly women and children, and tried to support them.  

Good working relationships also existed between PECCS staff, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Police Officers, NICTS staff and the judiciary.

“However Inspectors found challenges existed around the recruitment and retention of PECCS staff and a need for more role-specific training and ongoing professional development to support staff,” said Ms Durkin.

“We have recommended that the Northern Ireland Prison Service should carry out a workforce review of the PECCS within the next six months to address these issues, identify the future resourcing requirements and streamline the current management structures.” 

The report has also recommended that steps be taken to address the current lack of IT access in court custody areas.

Inspectors found that PECCS staff relied on manual paper based records and journal methods to collect data and information on detainee needs and court custody throughput. 

“This lack of IT access meant information collected by PECCS staff around gender, age and ethnicity for example was limited, and opportunities were missed to collate or analyse information and share learning to improve outcomes for detainees and enhance service delivery,” said Ms Durkin.

“Inspectors have recommended that action be taken to install IT hardware and software in all court custody areas within the next 12 months to address this issue, and enable appropriate information to be shared between PECCS and prison staff about detainees coming into prison reception or from prison to court to support their care and treatment,” she said.

The report makes four strategic and nine operational recommendations for improvement to deliver better services and outcomes in the future.

“I hope the PECCS, PSNI and the NICTS build on their current strong partnership to improve the existing service and ensure that PECCS services are appropriately included in plans to recover criminal court hearings following the COVID-19 pandemic,” concluded the Chief Inspector.