Here's what happens if you're arrested and taken into police custody.

Subject to necessity, you can be arrested for any offence and taken into custody with or without a warrant. 

The rules for use of police powers such as arrest are set out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 (PACE) and accompanying PACE codes of practice.

What are your rights in custody?

A detainee has three primary rights:

  1. to have someone informed of their arrest
  2. to free legal advice
  3. to consult the codes of practice.

The right to have someone informed of their arrest

Any person arrested and held in custody has the right to request to have someone informed of their whereabouts.  If this person is unavailable they may choose up to two additional people. 

The officer in charge of detention, or the investigation has the discretion to allow further attempts until the information has been conveyed.

The right to legal advice

All detainee must be informed that free independent advice is available from a duty solicitor.

The right to consult the codes of practice

The codes of practice should be made available in all police stations for consultation by police officers, detained people and members of the public.

Notice of rights and entitlements

Everyone who is held in police detention should be given a copy of the Notice of rights and entitlements in a language they can understand.  The notice sets out their rights, and what they should expect when being held. 

Right to silence

You also have the right not to mention anything when questioned.  However adverse inferences can be drawn from this.  No inferences may be drawn if a person has not been given the opportunity to consult a solicitor before being questioned, charged, or informed of a prosecution.

How long can I be held for?

You can't be kept at a police station for more than 24 hours without being charged, although this can be extended to 36 hours with the authority of a police superintendent, and for up to 96 hours with the authority of a magistrate.

The one exception is for arrests under the Terrorism Act, where you can be held without charge for up to 14 days.

If there's not enough evidence to charge you, you can be released on police bail. You don't have to pay to be released on police bail, but you'll have to return to the station for further questioning when asked.

If you're charged and the police think there's a risk that you may commit another offence, fail to turn up at court, intimidate other witnesses or obstruct the course of justice, they can impose conditional bail. This means your freedom will be restricted in some way. For example, a curfew may be imposed on you if your offence was committed at night.

If you've been charged with a serious offence, you may be refused release and remanded in custody until trial. If you are found guilty, the time spent in prison before trial will be deducted from your sentence.

What happens in custody if you're young or mentally vulnerable?

In the case of juveniles under 17 years of age and mentally vulnerable people, an 'appropriate adult' must be present during questioning and searching to make sure the accused understands what’s happening. This might be their parent or guardian.

Appropriate adults are volunteers who play an important role in the custody environment by ensuring that the detained person whom they are assisting understands what is happening to them and why.  They can be a family member, friend or a volunteer or social care/health care professional.

The National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN) are a national membership group for organisations that run appropriate adult provisions across England and Wales.  It is funded by membership subscriptions and a couple of small grants from both the Home Office and the Department for Health.  Their aim is to promote the rights for both young people and vulnerable people in custody and to support appropriate adult services across England and Wales.

In January 2011 NAAN published their report on the appropriate adult provisions in England and Wales.  If you have been asked to be an appropriate adult you should may find other publications from NAAN helpful:

Mental health assessment

There are occasions when the police may act if they think that someone is in need of immediate care or control. They have the power to remove someone to a 'place of safety' for their own protection, or the protection of others.

Part of the Mental Health Act 1983 (section 136) details removing a mentally ill person from a public place to a place of safety. It details police powers and the rights of someone in this position.

The police, health authority and social services authority should agree a local policy for putting into practice section 136 of the act. For example, police officers should know who to contact at the local hospital and social services department.

A place of safety could be a hospital or a police station. A police station should only be used in exceptional circumstances, such as a serious threat of violence or danger to people providing care or support. A person may be transferred from one place of safety to another before assessment.

Taking someone to a place of safety will allow that person to be assessed by a doctor and interviewed by an approved mental health professional.
Approved mental health professionals are specially trained in both mental health and the law relating to it. They are appointed by local authorities to interview people and assess their well-being.

The maximum time someone can be detained at a place of safety is 72 hours (3 days). By then, any necessary arrangements for the person's treatment and care should have been made.

Guidance on the safer detention and handling of persons in police custody

The second edition of this definitive guidance was published in March 2012 by National Policing Improvement Agency) on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

It focuses on practical issues and provides guidance for police forces on the standards of care appropriate for individuals held in police custody.

Read the 2012 edition of the guidance on the safer detention and handling of persons in police custody. The first edition of the guidance, published in 2006 is also available.

Police custodial healthcare

In November 2007, the government launched a public consultation on how health and social care services can be improved for people subject to the criminal justice system. The consultation was a joint initiative between the Department of Health, Department of Children, Schools and Families, Ministry of Justice, Youth Justice Board and the Home Office. The consultation period closed on 4 March 2008. An independent evaluation report on 'Improving health, supporting justice' was published on the Department of Health website on 26 August 2008.

Police healthcare group

A number of initiatives have taken place or are underway locally and nationally, work has progressed around the safer detention guidance and development of national occupational standards for healthcare professionals in custody. The work in this area has been slow, and lacks both coordination and effective interaction with healthcare agencies.

We are discussing with ACPO and other key police and health stakeholders, the setting up of a strategic group to:

  • oversee the offender health strategy and its benefit and impact on delivery of services to the police environment
  • support and assist forces in dealing with people with mental and physical healthcare issues who come into contact with the police

Independent custody visiting

There are members of the community who are allowed access to police stations unannounced.  They are known as independent custody visitors and work on a voluntary basis to make sure that detained people are being treated properly and have access to their rights.

The Independent Custody Visitors Association (ICVA) is a voluntary organisation that promotes and supports the effective provision of custody visiting nationally, raising public awareness on the rights and entitlements, health and wellbeing of people held in police custody and the conditions and facilities in which they are kept.

For information on ICVA and independent custody visiting, please view the following links:

Can I complain if I think I've been a victim of police misconduct?

If you believe you've been arrested and detained unlawfully or your rights have been abused, you can complain to:

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