Suspected violent criminals to be held for longer without trial under new law

People arrested for serious crimes can spend longer in custody as they await trial, under temporary legislation announced today. If passed by parliament, the period of time that offenders can be held before a trial – known as the Custody Time Limit - will be increased from 182 days to 238 days.

These suspects would include those accused of violent offenders and those accused of sexual crimes. This extension has been introduced to addresses the delays to jury trials that have been caused by the pandemic – despite the world-leading efforts of judiciary, court staff and lawyers to keep justice moving since March and will prioritise cases such as domestic abuse and child protection.

This extension of the maximum length of detention before trial has significant implications for human rights. Detaining people before trial is considered a 'final option' in the court system, and only those who are considered to pose a significant risk of repeat offending, intimidating witnesses, or who breach bail conditions are detained before a trial. The limits on the maximum amount of time a suspect can be held before conviction is hotly debated, as these prisoners have not yet been convicted of any crime. 

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown restrictions meant a suspension of all jury trials, adding to an already significant backlog in the criminal court system. The impact of social distancing during the pandemic means courts cannot currently hear the volume of cases required to reduce the backlog.

The Lord Chancellor simultaneously unveiled a £80m plan to boost capacity across criminal courts. Under the plan, 1,600 new staff will be employed across the service to support the recovery, more temporary ‘Nightingale Courts’ will be introduced across the country to deal with minor cases, additional technology will be introduced across the system, and the physical set-up of courtrooms - including the introduction of plexiglass barriers - will be changed to enable greater social distancing and to minimise risk

The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, said:

Throughout the pandemic this government has taken the necessary steps to protect the public while ensuring that justice continues to be delivered.

This temporary extension to custody time limits will keep victims and the public safe, and we should not apologise for making that our priority.

At the same time, the measures I have announced today will get the criminal courts system back to where it needs to be – reducing delays and delivering speedier justice for all.

In welcoming the recovery plan, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, The Lord Burnett of Maldon said:

The pandemic has had an adverse impact on the timeliness of the criminal justice system, with many trials necessarily delayed. This plan is an important document which gives a clear path towards recovery as the judges and magistrates, in partnership with HM Courts Service, the Ministry of Justice and many others, strive to ensure that cases are heard as soon as possible in the public interest and the interests of all those involved in the criminal process.

The legislation is expected to come into force on 28th September and will apply to anyone who is arrested and remanded for an offence deemed serious enough for a Crown Court trial after that date. The new custody time limits will remain in place for nine months. After which, current time lengths will resume.

David Lammy MP, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary, said:

Rather than deal with the backlog they helped create through a decade of cuts and court closures, the Government has been forced to increase the amount of time unconvicted defendants spend locked up.

As a result, justice will be further delayed for the victims of crime, as well as defendants.

This is the result of the Government’s incompetence and complete failure to address the crisis in our courts that Labour has been warning about for months.

This article was updated to include comment from David Lammy, the Shadow Justice Secretary