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Should we be imprisoning people for forgetting to turn up to court?

Penelope Gibbs
15 Nov 2019

If you go into any magistrates court you will notice that cases often don’t go ahead because either the defendant, the witness or both has not turned up. You will hear the prosecution asking for “warrant no bail” in response. If the bench agrees, this means the police have to arrest the defendant and detain them until they can get them to court. In reality it means that defendants can spend up to 48 hours imprisoned in a police cell before they get to court. The police have to spend time tracking the defendant down, taking them to the nearest custody suite (which may be many miles away), processing them into custody, assessing their vulnerability and looking after them. On the day of the court hearing, they need to be processed out of police custody and put on a van to court. At court, defendants who have arrived from the police station are imprisoned in court cells, and they appear in court in the secure dock, accompanied by a security guard. Nearly all are then released at the end of the hearing, having received some kind of sanction, usually a fine, for the offence of not turning up to court.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of defendants are failing to turn up for their court appointments – there are more people of no fixed abode and so many courts have closed that its often difficult a get to the local court, and to afford the fare.

Transform Justice recently surveyed practitioners about police custody and asked whether “detention on warrant” was working. Most police who responded thought detention in police custody was deserved. Comments from police officers included: “Failing to appear is not a minor crime. Flagrant disregard of the judicial process should be dealt with robustly”; “some detainees do not give any regard to the court and don’t care about not attending as they know they will be detained and do not have to bother about getting there themselves. Bailing them will not stop the FTA [failure to appear] warrant appearing again”.

But I’m not convinced that the punishment fits the crime. Someone who doesn’t turn up for their court hearing may not have got the letter, may have mental health problems and/or lead a chaotic life. They should of course turn up for their court hearing, but maybe the response to FTA may need to be different. Also I’m not persuaded detention on warrant is the best use of police resources. It must cost over a thousand pounds per person to arrest and detain someone on warrant in the police station and at court. And these people seldom pose an immediate threat to public safety.

The craziness of the current system is that people are detained in police custody even if they realise their mistake and turn up at court. If someone misses a court appointment and goes to court a few days later admitting their mistake, the court staff will usually send that person to the police station since they say they cannot deal with those on warrant. Someone who walks into the police station a free man is then processed and detained by the police until they can be transported, in a secure van, to court hours, even days, later.

As more and more courts close, can we afford such a costly approach to not turning up? A few suggestions for a different response

  • Remind people of their court hearing by text, email and/or voice message. Get the defendant’s permission to communicate with support workers/relatives about the appointment so they can also remind and/or accompany.
  • Don’t rely on the post to tell people they need to get to court. It’s unreliable and letters are too easy to lose.
  • Find a way to deal immediately with people at court if they turn up admitting they have missed their hearing.
  • If police have a warrant to arrest and find the defendant in court hours, let the police bring them straight to court rather than to the custody suite.
  • Give people a second chance. If they have missed their court appointment and can be reached by phone, give them a date to come to court and only issue a warrant without bail if they miss this.

Transform Justice is working a report on the use of police detention and we wonder whether you think warrant without bail for FTA is working effectively and cost-effectively? Email [email protected] with any views or experiences.