UK: Thousands held in prison for longer than legal time limit while awaiting trial

Article by Fair Trials

More than 3,600 people have been held in prison awaiting trial for longer than six months, Fair Trials has uncovered via Freedom of Information requests. This amounts to almost a third of the entire remand population held in prison as of December 2020. The figures show that 3,608 people had been held for six months, and 2,551 people have been held for eight months or longer as of December 2020.

In September, the Government extended Custody Time Limits (CTLs) – the amount of time that someone can be held on remand – from six to eight months. However, as the extended Custody Time Limit of 8 months only came into force in September 2020, none of the people held for longer than 6 months by December 2020 fall under that extended limit. As Fair Trials pointed out at the time, delaying justice has a negative impact for all involved – victims, witnesses and the accused.

Griff Ferris, Legal and Policy Officer at Fair Trials said:

“Holding unconvicted people in prison awaiting trial for excessive periods of time undermines our entire justice system. It is deeply unjust that people on remand feel forced to plead guilty because they re being held in inhumane prison conditions for unreasonable periods of time.”

“People are being made to suffer these conditions because of the government s insistence on putting more and more people in prison, and repeated and systematic failures to get trials heard in time.”

“The government must reverse the extension of time limits on pre-trial custody immediately, and implement structural solutions to this crisis aimed at releasing more people, rather than trying to find more ways to put more people into prison, which is what it’s trying to do with the Policing Bill.”

Defendants pleading guilty

Fair Trials has also been contacted by defendants held on remand who have reported people pleading guilty, so they didn’t have to stay in prison “until 2022” awaiting a trial. One defendant told Fair Trials that they were “aware of at least four other people who pleaded guilty just so they didn’t have to stay in prison potentially until 2022 just to have a trial, and that they were also willing to plead guilty to get out of there… due to the conditions, time locked up” and not being able to get proper access to legal support. They called it “totally wrong and unjust”.

Another defendant told Fair Trials of how they had been on remand since October 2019, accused of drugs offences. They spoke about how during the pandemic they were held in their cell for 23 hours a day, and that they have “really struggled with the isolation”.

This adds to previous reports of people pleading guilty to avoid extensive pre-trial detention in pandemic prison conditions.

Deteriorating prison conditions

Prison conditions during the pandemic have deteriorated, with people held in cells for more than 23 hours a day in what amounts to solitary confinement, and some prevented from showering or exercising for weeks.

Remand figures

In January 2021 it was reported by the inspectorates for policing, prosecutions, prisons and probation that the remand population is currently at its highest levels in six years, with 12,274 people held on remand, a 22% increase since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, and the remand population represents 15% of the entire prison population. That means that 1 in 7 people held in prison have not been convicted of a crime and are just waiting for a trial. As of March 2020, 23% of people held on remand were held for alleged drugs offences and 12% for alleged theft offences.

Many of those held on remand may also be innocent. One in ten people held in pre-trial detention in 2019 were found innocent at trial and a quarter were not sent to prison following their trial.

Disproportionate impact on BAME people

There is also a significant racial disparity amongst people held on remand. The government s own risk assessment revealed that keeping people on remand longer disproportionately affects people from Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, but they pushed ahead with the extension. In 2019, Black, Asian and minority ethnic ( BAME ) individuals made up 6,408 (20.2%) of the 31,680 people who were remanded in custody – a clearly disproportionate amount. Since 2015, BAME people have consistently made up at least 20% of those remanded in custody awaiting trial.