The 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 requests by the legal charity Fair Trials, 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. Fair Trials also noted that when asked in Parliament, the minister responding on behalf of the government failed to provide this information.
The international charity points out that custody time limits exist to safeguard people who have been charged but not found guilty of any offence. As reported last week, the government is to extend the time limit people can be held awaiting trial from 182 days to 238 days.
The courts are presently overwhelmed by a backlog of 43,000 cases which for the most part predate COVID-19. As many cases were adjourned following lockdown, defendants have been held in prison for extended periods often for minor or even non-violent offences. There was widespread concern after Judge Raynor complained of ‘improper and undue influence‘ from senior judges to agree to custody time limit extensions.
‘Innocent people are being held for months in prison awaiting their trials, ignored by an underfunded and crumbling criminal justice system,’ commented Griff Ferris, legal and policy officer for Fair Trials. ‘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.
According to a recent Fair Trials survey of frontline criminal justice professionals, 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. ‘Quite frankly, custody time limits may as well not exist,’ said one respondent.