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Commentary: Pre-trial detention decision-making during the COVID-19 crisis: the urgent need for open justice

FairTrialsAdmin - April 8, 2020 - COVID-19 Updates, Commentary, Remote Justice, Extended pre-trial detention, Access to a lawyer

This post was written by Dr Thomas Smith, Senior Lecturer in Law,  University of the West of England, Bristol

Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has the majority of the world confined to their homes on lockdown, vital public services – most visibly healthcare – continue to operate in very difficult and risky circumstances. The criminal justice system is one such public service. Whilst most jurisdictions have made significant changes to their working practices in response to the pandemic, work must continue to ensure that justice is delivered fairly and effectively. An essential element of doing so is ensuring justice is seen to be done; this principle of open justice is crucial to a fair and effective justice system, but is currently under threat. In England and Wales (E&W), this is particularly so in relation to cases involving pre-trial detention (PTD), which are, at present, the main work of the criminal courts. The vast majority of cases deemed non-vital are currently not being heard, most notably in magistrates courts (in which all cases start and most cases conclude). HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), which has been publishing daily operational updates, identifies ‘overnight custody cases from police stations’, ‘productions from prisons’, and ‘applications to extend custody time limits’ as the only work currently being conducted by the Crown Prosecution Service (which prosecutes most criminal cases). All involve PTD. Overnight custody cases are, in effect, the first appearance at court of someone charged with an offence. If detained by the police after charge, this must happen the next working day. Productions from prisons will also normally relate to a relevant time limit on PTD, such as the requirement for a defendant to be returned to court within 8 clear days after their first detention. Custody Time Limits (CTLs) apply to all cases involving PTD, and vary depending on the seriousness of the charge. If the limit expires, the defendant must be released on bail – hence the need to return them to court to extend a limit (which courts have the power to do). Other work is identified as continuing in magistrates courts, but the above will be the main case load currently being dealt with – and all involve, exclusively, PTD decision making. 

This is important for several reasons. There are no new jury trials; the Crown Court (the higher criminal trial court) will only cover urgent work. The senior courts, such as the Court of Appeal (which cover a fraction of the cases dealt with in trial courts) are similar. Therefore, dealing with PTD decisions are and will represent the primary day-to-day activity of the criminal courts system as a whole for the foreseeable future. This makes sense in the current situation, but raises questions about pre-existing issues related to PTD. For example, concerns have been raised about the brevity of PTD decision-making, lasting on average a few minutes. Set against a general atmosphere of ‘urgency’ both outside of and within the courts, this may be exacerbated. Similarly, previous concerns about limited reasoning for PTD decisions may be affected by the desire to work swiftly in the current circumstances. Both of the above may also be impacted by the now pervasive use of video link technology (VLT) to avoid the attendance of all parties at court. This is clearly justifiable for public health reasons and the safety of all involved; but this has also been implemented very quickly. VLT has been criticised in the past for not facilitating proceedings adequately in terms of quality, reliability and engagement of all parties involved (particularly defendants). In terms of speed and reasoning, one would hope that more time would be taken over VLT to ensure decisions are thorough and clear. But it might be argued that technology tends to enable and encourage us to do things more quickly. There is a risk this could deepen the problems above. 

The same might be said of disclosure of information and evidence in advance of PTD hearings. Defendants and their lawyers have previously reported consistently failing to be given full information prior to consultation and representation before a court on PTD matters. Lawyers would often receive such information shortly before or even during hearings, sometimes by physically being shown material in court. This may be even more problematic in the current circumstances if none of the parties are actually present in the same room. One must wonder whether remote conduct of PTD hearings will help or hinder defence lawyers in this regard; after all, sharing of evidence prior to the pandemic was done entirely electronically, and yet has consistently been a problem. It is also worth noting that it appears that most PTD decision making in the courts is currently being made by District Judges (DJs, professional judges) rather than a bench of lay magistrates (ordinary, legally untrained citizens). Previous research  has suggested distinct modes of practice depending on the decision-maker, with DJs tending to be quicker, but better in terms of reasoning. Some research has also shown a tendency of DJs to be more willing to detain defendants, though this has varied. Again, this factor could have some impact on PTD decision-making over the coming months. 

Aside from aggravating existing problems in PTD practice, the current situation creates new issues. It has been pointed out by many that it is imperative to reduce the use of detention generally (including PTD) for public health reasons. Keeping defendants out of custody where possible and lawful should be a priority. As such, decisions need to be well considered and not relapse into habitual ways of approaching cases. Previous research has shown PTD practice stubbornly resistant to change in many respects (with some exceptions); we must therefore hope that the long-term issues highlighted above do not restrict this important need to think differently about detention in light of Covid-19. It is hard to say how much of a problem the issues above will be; these suggestions are purely speculative, but that is for good reason. At present, in E&W, it is almost impossible for a researcher or the public to observe PTD decision-making in the courts: they are effectively inaccessible. HMCTS has announced ‘a range of measures to support the principle of open justice’, including: 

  1. access to open hearings if a public gallery is available 
  2. remote access for a third party 
  3. transcripts (if available) for any party or interested person 
  4. audio recording which can be listened to in a court building 
  5. notes of a hearing to be made available on request 
  6. access for accredited media  

On paper, this looks to be a good range of access to PTD decision making in the current difficult circumstances. In reality, they are arguably unfeasible. Numbers 1 and 4 are almost impossible in light of strong guidance to the public not to leave home unless it is essential. Number 2 will, effectively, depend on the goodwill and engagement of particular court staff to facilitate such access. Transcripts may not, in fact, be made and if requested, will depend on definitions such as ‘interested party’. Number 5 may not provide useful information to an observer since notes will not necessarily be comprehensive or reflect their interests. It is also worth noting that for none of the above is further information available on how one might pursue these routes of access. 

Number 6 is the only route that appears to be currently operational, but only to some extent. Some journalists have reported good access to proceedings via remote links. For example, Tristan Cork of the London Evening Standard reported on the bail hearing of Julian Assange (who had a bail request denied on the basis he might flee – a questionable decision in light of the extreme travel restrictions presently in place in the UK). However, this was a high profile case, likely to attract attention – unlike most PTD hearings. Moreover, most of the journalists reporting good access are London-based. It might also be added that many – including Cork – will now be on furlough due to Covid-19, like many members of the working public, and will therefore not be reporting on cases. As such, at present, it is unclear how accessible PTD decision-making is to the media, the public, or researchers. We might therefore ask – beyond the lawyers involved in cases, who is checking current practice? PTD decision-making directly affects the liberty of unconvicted persons and this will (and should) continue despite the various restrictions currently in place. However, the latter fact creates potential for lengthy delays to trials since none are being listed, and therefore much longer periods of detention for unconvicted defendants. It is very important to be able to properly scrutinise such decision making; a lack of scrutiny in any discipline enables (and in some cases encourages) poor practice to flourish.

All the above might be dubbed an overreaction, but the conviction of Marie Dinou has already proven the risks to be real. Dinou was approached by police at Newcastle Central train station and asked to account for her presence. She did not do so and was arrested on suspicion of an offence under the new Coronavirus Act 2020. She spent two days in custody before being brought to a court hearing; after failing to confirm her personal details, she was returned to the court cells, and was convicted in her absence without a lawyer. Dinou allegedly did not say a word on arrest; to her lawyer at the police station; or at court. It appears no mental health assessment was made of her, nor was it confirmed whether she spoke English. After persistent inquiry by journalists and lawyers via social media, it transpired that Dinou had been charged with a non-existent offence under the legislation, and therefore wrongfully convicted. This has now been set aside. As has been pointed out by lawyer Robin Murray, there appear to have been a catalogue of breaches of the Criminal Procedure Rules (which govern criminal court proceedings) and legislation relating to disclosure, compounded by a lack of legal representation and failure to confirm the defendant’s ability to comprehend proceedings. This case, however, bucks the trend of invisibility for most; it was a minor offence dealt with in a lower court, which are generally paid little attention. Yet Dinou spent two days in PTD, to be convicted incorrectly. This raises the very real possibility that this may already be happening across E&W (a jurisdiction with a comparatively robust PTD framework), and beyond; and with very limited access to the courts for external observers to scrutinise and question poor practice, there is real risk of not only unnecessary and excessive detention of unconvicted persons, but wrongful convictions. It is therefore imperative that access to external observation be realistically operationalised as soon as possible; and that practitioners ensure that thoroughness and care is taken in PTD decision-making in the admittedly very difficult – but, equally, medium-term – circumstances in which criminal justice now functions. 

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please call the media team on +44 (0) 7749 785 932 or email [email protected]

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