Fair Trials in the United Kingdom
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The UK’s criminal justice systems are facing an unprecedented crisis. Over a decade of funding cuts have left courts buckling under the pressure of a growing backlog of cases, and increasing numbers of people are left without the support they need to defend themselves, due to the neglect of legal aid.
The UK now has one of the highest prison populations in Europe, which includes thousands of people who haven’t been convicted of a crime but are waiting months, and even years, for a trial. We need to tackle the underlying causes of these problems, but instead we’re constantly facing new laws and policies that push for more crime, more policing, and more ‘efficiency’. These are threatening the right to a fair trial and reinforcing the discrimination that is embedded in the UK’s criminal justice systems.
The UK has separate legal systems for England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Currently, our work focuses mostly on England and Wales.
How we work
We research, investigate, and work with campaigners, NGOs, defence lawyers and policy makers to expose and challenge the threats to the right to a fair trial in the UK.
As an international NGO, we bring in-depth expertise from a comparative and international perspective to provide innovative and practical solutions to long-standing problems. We also provide access to a brilliant and engaged network of leading lawyers, non-profits and academics from around the world.
Pre-trial detention (Remand custody)
In June 2021, there were over 10,000 people in prison in England and Wales who have not been convicted of a crime but are waiting for a trial. Pre-trial detention is one of the harshest actions that a state can take against someone and it can have devastating consequences. We have been investigating and raising awareness of the increasing numbers of people who are being held on remand awaiting trial in England and Wales. This problem has been made worse by increasing court delays during the Covid-19 pandemic – at the start of 2021, there were over 60,000 cases waiting to be heard by criminal courts.
In March 2021, we uncovered that thousands of people were being held on remand for longer than eight months.
We asked people being held on remand to tell us about their experiences of prison during lockdown. Published in our report, Locked up in Lockdown, they revealed that people are being held in inhumane conditions for excessive periods of time, leading some respondents to say that they had considered pleading guilty to crimes they hadn’t committed.
Read more about our campaign to reduce pre-trial detention.
Access to lawyers in police stations
People who are suspected of crimes in England and Wales have a right to have a lawyer physically with them during any police interview to protect their rights. Since April 2021, lawyers have been allowed to give advice remotely by phone or video link. Fair Trials has raised concerns that this is affecting the quality of legal assistance and advice given to people who have been accused of a crime.
Read our report on the impact of remote legal advice on young children and adults.
Read our legal opinion on why it was unlawful for organisations representing solicitors, prosecutors and the police to allow lawyers to give advice remotely. [LINK]
Read our report on the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on justice in the UK.
Challenging legislation that undermines fair trial rights
Fair Trials challenges legislation and policies that threaten fairness and equality in our criminal justice systems. We are campaigning to ensure that criminal justice reforms are centred around human rights rather than austerity or the ‘tough on crime’ agenda, which leads to overcriminalisation and overimprisonment.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill contains measures that will reinforce systemic racism in our criminal legal system, put the rights of disabled people at risk, and exacerbate injustice and inequality in criminal trials. Read our briefing and recommendations here. [https://www.fairtrials.org/publication/police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill-fair-trials-committee-stage-briefing] The Judicial Review and Courts Bill claims to make courts in England and Wales more efficient. However, proposals to allow people to be convicted and sentence online undermine the criminal legal process and incentivise people to plead guilty. Read our briefing and recommendations here. https://www.fairtrials.org/sites/default/files/JR%20and%20Courts%20Bill%20-%20Fair%20Trials%20-%20Second%20Reading.pdf
Trial waivers and plea bargaining
Single Justice Procedure
Hundreds of people have been wrongly charged and prosecuted under the Health Protection Regulations and the Coronavirus Act 2020. Many of these unlawful charges have been brought via the Single Justice Procedure, and remain unchallenged, with almost 90% of Single Justice Procedure notices going unanswered. These charges and prosecutions are being brought without sufficient oversight, without any meaningful review process, and are resulting in guilty pleas and convictions for offences people have not committed, in a process they may also not be aware of. Along with other human rights organisations, we are calling for an end to the use of the Single Justice Procedure for coronavirus related offences. LINK https://www.fairtrials.org/news/single-justice-procedure-unlawful-coronavirus-prosecutions-and-convictions-behind-closed-doors
Young people and plea bargaining
A Fair Trials project aims to understand how well young adults understand the decisions they are being asked to make when they are encouraged to plead guilty to a crime. We will use this research to engage policy makers and criminal justice professionals in identifying credible policy reforms to ensure fairness in plea bargaining.
If you are interested in working with Fair Trials in the UK, please contact Bruno Min.