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NEWS

UK Government admits it doesn’t know extent of excessive pre-trial detention since Covid began

FT Admin - September 15, 2020 - Pre-trial detention, Presumption of innocence

The UK government has admitted that it doesn’t know how many people have been held in jail for excessive periods while waiting for a trial since the coronavirus lockdown began. In response to a freedom of information request, neither the Crown Prosecution Service nor the Ministry of Justice could give figures on how many applications to extend Custody Time Limits had been made since March 2020. Previously, when asked in Parliament, the minister responding on behalf of the government also failed to provide this information. 

Despite the lack of data, the government last week announced temporary legislation to extend the time limit people can be held awaiting trial from 182 days to 238 days, almost eight months, which Fair Trials said “will further delay justice for everyone involved – victims, witnesses and the accused”.  Jeremy Benson, QC and Sailesh Mehta from Red Lion Chambers pointed out that this could lead to false guilty pleas, as in some cases, defendants will spend more time in custody awaiting trial than the sentence they would eventually receive if they pleaded guilty.

The admission also comes a week after Judge Keith Raynor alleged “improper” pressure by senior judges to agree to Custody Time Limit extensions, while refusing another Custody Time Limit extension for a defendant already held for 321 days without trial. In July, Judge Raynor warned that “many defendants in custody will not be tried until well into 2021”, while refusing to extend the Custody Time Limit for a defendant who had been held awaiting trial for drugs charges since December 2019. He ruled that the lack of money provided by parliament and the delays in bringing cases to trial were not a good enough reason to deprive someone of their liberty.

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

“Innocent people are being held for months in prison awaiting their trials, ignored by an underfunded and crumbling criminal justice system.

“These people are suffering as a result of the Government’s  failure to properly resource the justice system and deal with the backlog of cases, forcing them to languish in prison while cases are delayed until 2021 and even 2022. This is even more worrying when the Government admits that it doesn’t actually know how many people are currently being held for excessive periods.

"We need a properly resourced justice system to reduce the backlog of cases, and for low-risk defendants to be released from pre-trial detention." 

Responses to a recent Fair Trials survey of frontline criminal justice professionals including defence solicitors, barristers and magistrates indicate that custody time limits are being extended routinely as a direct result of delays to trial proceedings. Some defence lawyers expressed concern that judges were granting extensions whenever a trial was adjourned due to COVID-19, with little regard for the necessity of continued pre-trial detention. One respondent stated that “Quite frankly, [custody time limits] may as well not exist."

Notes to Editors

Custody Time Limits exist to safeguard defendants – people who have been charged but not found guilty of any offence – from being held in prison awaiting trial for excessive periods of time. As many cases were adjourned this year due to the lockdown, defendants have been held in prison for extended periods, including for minor or even non-violent offences.

The justice system is dealing with a backlog of 43,000 cases, the majority of which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, due to long-standing and chronic underfunding.

Fair Trials has told the Justice Committee that the government should be focusing not just on easing pressure on courts but also on reducing pre-trial detention.

 

 

 

 

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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