Plans to add two months to the period that accused persons can be held in custody before trial is likely to disproportionately affect ethnic minorities, according to the government. According to an equality impact statement provided to the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, ‘defendants who are Black, Mixed, Chinese or Other ethnic groups, males, or children are more likely to be remanded in custody during any point in Crown Court proceedings’ under the proposed Custody Time Limits (CTLs) extensions (here).
At the end of September, temporary legislation came into force, extending the time people in the Crown Court can wait for their trial from 182 days to 238 days. The government claimed this was a necessary measure to deal with the backlog of cases resulting from the coronavirus lockdown which halted jury trials in March.
It was also revealed Black, Mixed, Chinese, and other ethnic groups are more likely to be held in pre-trial detention. In 2019, 47% of Black defendants were kept in custody during Crown Court proceedings. In stark contrast, only 38% of White defendants were remanded in custody. ‘Not only are Black defendants disproportionately remanded in custody, but they are also more likely to elect for a trial by jury than White defendants,’ the report said. This places their cases into the Crown Court’s jurisdiction, allowing them to be held on remand for far longer than cases at the Magistrates Courts.
Griff Ferris, Legal and Policy Officer at NGO Fair Trials said the government’s extension of the CTLs, given they were warned of the racialised impact, was ‘shocking’. ‘Extending Custody Time Limits directly reinforces the structural inequality and discrimination that already exists in the criminal justice system. It’s unacceptable that these people are being made to suffer for the government’s own failure to properly fund the justice system and deal with the backlog of cases. The government must resource the justice system and release low-risk defendants awaiting trial.’
There are close to 500,000 cases which have not been heard in magistrates and crown courts in England and Wales, despite the government’s ‘Nightingale’ courts (here). A Freedom of Information request by Fair Trails has found the government does not know how many people are being held on remand for excessive periods of time.
Campaigners have urged the government to withdraw regulations, criticising the cost to the taxpayer and delay in an outcome.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said that the statement says that ‘our measures are a proportionate means to protect our court users during the pandemic’. ‘It also sets out factors which reduce the impact of these measures on disadvantaged groups, including defendants’ right to apply for bail and have their detention scrutinised by a judge.’