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Lords Committee questions two month extension to remand periods

Friday 25 September 2020

The Lords Secondary Legislation Committee has this week published a report expressing concerns about new regulations extending by eight weeks the maximum time defendants in criminal cases can be held on remand while awaiting trial. They ask the Ministry of Justice what other measures are being used to tackle the backlog of criminal trials that have built up as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Prosecution of Offences (Custody Time Limits) (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 extend the maximum remand period of a defendant awaiting jury trial in the Crown Court by 56 days (eight weeks) to allow the courts to manage the delays due to COVID-19.

The Regulations will come into effect on 28 September and are effective until 28 June 2021 and mean that any defendant awaiting trial in a Crown Court will have their Custody Time Limits, currently set at 182 days, extended to a maximum of 238 days (about eight months).

For those defendants remanded in custody for the first time after the commencement of the Regulations but before their expiry, the longer remand periods will continue to apply even after these Regulations are no longer in force.

The Committee’s report says while it understands that the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed court hearings while social distancing and infection prevention measures were put in place, a backlog in court hearings existed before the outbreak of the pandemic. The Committee expresses concern that this extension to the Custody Time Limit appears to be a way of working round the issue rather than solving the problem. The report says:

“The backlog that necessitates this extension of remand periods delays justice for both the defendant and the victim and may add to the difficulties that prisons are facing during the pandemic. Extending remand can have extremely detrimental effects on the mental health of the individual and on the welfare of their families, especially where the prisoner is a parent or has dependants, every effort should be made to reduce pre-trial detention as soon as possible. The House may therefore wish to ask the Minister what other measures are being taken to address the backlog of trials.”

Lord Hodgson, Chair of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said:

“When we discussed this issue, the Committee expressed serious concerns about how extended remand periods may have significant detrimental effects on defendants and their families, especially in cases involving female single-parent families. The lack of data on the numbers of defendants released on bail was also a cause for concern.

“Depriving anyone of their liberty before they have been convicted of a crime is one of the most serious steps the state can take and we must ensure periods of pre-trial incarceration are not extended any longer than necessary.

“Any backlog in court hearings delays justice for both the defendant and the victim. While we acknowledge that defendants are remanded in custody due to factors including the nature and seriousness of the offence with which they are charged, and the likelihood of committing further offences if released on bail, we would wish to ask the Minister what other measures are being taken to address this backlog.

“We have made our report to the House ahead of the period during which Members are able to object to the Regulations. That period ends on 16 October.”

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