Thousands of people are being held on remand for months, sometimes years, far beyond lawful time limits, according to a new report which also claims people are pleading guilty to avoid being stuck in prison indefinitely as a result of the backlog of cases in the courts. The new study from the legal charity Fair Trials includes accounts from 23 people who are or have been remanded in a prison awaiting trial during the pandemic. An advertisement was placed by the group in the prisoner’s newspaper Inside Time newspaper asking people to write about their experiences of pre-trial detention during the pandemic and prompted responses from from 19 different prisons across England and Wales.
Fair Trials argue that people should only be held in pre-trial detention as ‘an exceptional measure and cases must be brought to trial within a reasonable time’. ‘Thousands of people are being held on remand for months, sometimes years, far beyond time limits set out in legislation, leading to a number of serious issues,’ the group says.
As of December 2020, there were over 12,000 people being held in prison waiting for the start of their trial. Before the lockdown in March last year, crown courts already had a backlog of 39,000 and by April 2021 it reached almost 60,000 and was growing at a rate of around 1,000 cases a month. The length of time that someone can be held in prison awaiting trial in the Crown Court is six months. In September 2020, the Government increased the time lime to eight months.
Lawyers told Fair Trials that the time limit ‘may as well not exist’ and that they were extended ‘as a matter of routine’. This was acknowledged by the justice minister Chris Philp MP in response to a written question who confirmed extensions were ‘being routinely granted amongst’ in November 2020. Fair Trials point out there is no limit to the number of extensions.
Of the 23 people who wrote to the group, twelve said ‘they have plead guilty, considered pleading guilty, or know people who have plead guilty to offences they did not commit’ in order to get out of extended pre-trial detention during the pandemic. ‘I was totally innocent but due to the conditions, time locked up and not being able to get appropriate legal conferences I was willing to plead guilty to get out of there. I was well over my custody limit as well,’ wrote ‘Alex’. ‘I am aware of at least 4 other people who pleaded guilty just so they didn’t have to stay in HMP Preston potentially until 2022 just to have a trial. It is totally wrong and unjust.’
According to Fair Trials, people held on remand are pleading guilty ‘simply to avoid excessive time in prison awaiting trial’ as a result of court delays across England and Wales. The group argue there is ‘a mental health crisis’ among the on remand prison population and incidences of self-harm and suicide. ‘Being held on remand seriously impacts your health, wellbeing and relationships, with no recompense if you are found not guilty,’ it argues.
‘These harrowing first-hand accounts of life on remand during the pandemic show a broken criminal justice system, coercing guilty pleas from innocent people, inhumane prison conditions and a denial of basic human contact, and a serious mental health crisis amongst people held in prisons,’ says Griff Ferris, Fair Trials’ legal and policy officer. ‘These people’s voices, experience and opinions are often ignored or avoided, but they deserve to be heard. People should know the real impact of trial delays on someone’s life, what has been going on behind prison gates during the pandemic, and how severely this has impacted people held on remand physically and mentally. Urgent action is needed, now.’