Scott Neilson, a Partner at Tuckers Kent Branch, attended and spoke at the Wellbeing in Criminal Justice Conference at the Christchurch University in Canterbury on 9th October to coincide with World Mental Health Day.
Mary Makinde, a Lecturer in Forensic Investigation at Canterbury Christchurch University, opened and welcomed everyone to the conference. She states that 1 in 4 people experience mental health problems in UK, and that there are 72 million days a year are lost through days taken off due to mental health challenges. Mental wellbeing affects not just victims, but also suspects in the criminal justice system. Sometimes mental health challenges may only be recognised when someone becomes a suspect. Mary also raised how important it is to support colleagues and peers who work in the criminal justice act.
Other speakers at the event were Andy Broomham from Crime Scene Investigation, Daji Olaniyi-Maxwell, who is a Forensic MH Practitioner working for the charity, Together Now, and David Holgate, an Inspector at Met Police Service. Scott Neilson was the event’s first speaker. Scott has been working as a criminal defence practitioner in Kent for around 25 years.
His talk was two prong – first he discussed how mental health issues of defendant impacts the justice system and then how the work of defence lawyers can impact upon their mental health.
Scott was not able to paint anything other than a bleak picture of the criminal justice system at present due to the reduction in budgets for the police, prosecution and probation. The cuts have had an impact on all areas of the criminal justice system.
As everything that starts with the police, so does Scott. He states that,
“Police have been subject to significant reduction in officers. Less police officers means less resources to deal with investigations and offenders. Less people go before the Courts which means that there has been job losses at Crown Prosecution Service and court closures. There has not been a reduction in offences. What that means is that offences are not being prosecuted.”
Scott highlighted a case which he dealt with before arriving at the conference,
“I had a phone call at midday today from my office regarding a client of mine who had been arrested and was at the police station since 2 a.m. The police said that my client has significant mental health issues and that there was an appropriate adult due to attend. The appropriate adult was allocated by police.”
He explained that anyone deemed to have significant mental health issues or who is under 18 would be assigned an appropriate adult to assist understanding and facilitate communication. He continued,
“Very often, these members of our society are socially isolated. The appropriate adult scheme is staffed by unpaid volunteers. Although an appropriate adult had been allocated to this case, they had not arrived at the police station and the defendant was also to be seen by the Community Practice Nurse at the police station. There are only a few CPNs in the area with lots of police stations to cover. It is not unusual for people to wait for hours before they see the CPN.”
He stated that he is confident that suspect will still be in the police station later this evening. He will be very stressed, upset and bewildered. This is a tale that happens every single day, which is replayed across the country.
Unfortunately, the cuts to mental health services make things even more difficult for suspects, with a local waiting list for a telephone consultation could take up to 6 weeks. Suspects may have reoffended in that time. He then began discussing the issues that impact defence lawyers:
“Our main concern is safety. We are regularly locked in rooms with violent offenders. Attacks of clients upon their solicitors have increased.
We work long hours. We do not work shifts, like the police. We work all day, sometimes at Court, possibly sitting late, and then attend the police stations through the night. The job is not well paid, can be stressful and the hours are long. The impact on our mental health can be significant.”
Gemma Adams, also of our Margate office, has recently attended the Mental Health First Aid course as we are making attempts to encourage positive wellbeing in our office, and the professional generally.
Scott then discussed the cuts to legal aid and impact upon those who are coming into the profession,
“We have had no increase in legal aid rates for 20 years. We are as motivated by money as any other profession, but it is clear that we are not doing it for the money. In 2013, our payment rate for some cases was reduced 8.75% and staff members have not had pay rises for a number of years. It is not an attractive career to go into. The Law Society have raised concerns that young people are not coming into the profession. Most of my colleagues are in their 40s and 50s. In Kent, there are 172 duty solicitors, of which 60% are over 50 years old. Who will be doing this job in 20 years’ time?”
“There is a crisis in the criminal justice system and those with mental health issues are suffering. This is because the ability to do more has been taken away from away through cuts. I cannot be more optimistic than that.”