Today, the Government will lay temporary legislation extending custody time limits by 56 days for all new Crown Court cases from 28th September. These measures will remain in place for nine months.
Custody Time Limits safeguard unconvicted defendants by preventing them from being held in pre-trial custody for an excessive period of time. Custody Time Limits can already be extended on an individual basis due to illness, absence, the need for separate trials or some other good or sufficient reason. Indeed, a Coronavirus Crisis Protocol for the Effective Handling of Custody Time Limit Cases has been in place since April. Considering each case individually, the CPS and judges have been considering the court in which the trial is listed and all possible measures to enable the trial to be heard as soon as possible.
We are therefore extremely concerned that this measure will create a blanket extension of detention for all those remanded in custody, irrespective of their circumstances. The right to liberty is protected by Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This requires the question of whether continued detention is justified or necessary to be decided on the circumstances of each individual case.
We remain disappointed that six months on from courts closing due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the backlog of Crown Court trials continues to rise when measures could have been taken far sooner to get trials running again. While a package of measures to ensure safe trials was announced yesterday, and an increasing number of jury trials are taking place, these steps do not go far enough and come too late.
JUSTICE has tested fully remote jury trials, where all participants join the virtual court via video, with the hearing livestreamed to a virtual public gallery. This uses a video platform already utilised in the courts and which can be accessed from home computers, with jurors joining together in a local community, socially distanced hub. Independently evaluated by academic experts and through feedback from participants, we consider that the tests have shown the virtual trial to be fair, even improving how well participants can see and hear each other. While not suitable for all cases, we believe this provides one route to trial for simple Crown Court cases.
JUSTICE Director, Andrea Coomber, said:
“At a time when coronavirus infections are again rising in the UK, the Government should be doing everything possible to enable trials to be heard – to end the long periods remanded defendants have already spent under severe prison conditions and the uncertainty victims and witnesses face awaiting trial. Extending custody time limits sends a message that Government is not prioritising the administration of justice during this crisis.”