When lockdown was announced on 23rd March, all but essential services were closed and members of the public were urged to stay at home and stop all but essential travel. The emphasis on people working from home where possible has had a dramatic effect on existing and new cases in the criminal justice system.
The overnight closure of the vast majority of courts, and the stopping of all Crown Court trials due to last for 3 days or more, from 18th March – along with all jury trials stopping completely from April – was inevitably set to have an impact on cases, and the effect has been severe.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, courts and police stations across the country have faced unprecedented challenges. Ordinary procedures have had to be adapted to ensure the continued functioning of the justice system in these times.
Generally, police stations and police forces were unable to offer PPE to suspects or solicitors, nor were they able to guarantee social distancing. Initially, new procedures were hurriedly implemented, often with no consistency between and even within police forces. Some police forces and officers carried on just as before lockdown, with complete disregard for the government advice on staying at home. Some even continued to invite suspects in for voluntary interviews, for non-urgent and low priority offences.
It was not until the beginning of April that some level of co-ordinated and agreed response was formulated. The implementation was inconsistent and remains so to date.
This has led to concerns that suspects questioned by the police are not being afforded their rights and are losing the protection from abuses of power or procedure that the law provides. On occasions, the basic right that a suspect has to legal advice when being questioned as a suspect has been placed in jeopardy. The true extent of this damage can only be gauged in the fullness of time, when these cases are tested in the courts in the coming months and even years.
Within the court system, in March almost 50% of all courts were closed. In that month alone there were just 157 priority courts and tribunals open, but only for essential work. Jury trials were completely stopped by April, and have only resumed in 26 Crown Courts since June. 90% of all hearings conducted since lockdown have involved remote access and used recently introduced technology, such as the Cloud Virtual Platform or ‘CVP’ as it is now more commonly known.
The sudden and widespread adoption of remote working as a way for suspects and defendants to receive advice has quickly become the norm, and commentators have expressed concerns about the effectiveness of remote technology in both police stations and courts.
At Lawtons we have seen both the benefits and disadvantages, the latter more often when it is not consistently implemented, or is poorly understood – or where the infrastructure has been inadequate to support it.
In recent weeks Fair Trials, a global criminal justice watchdog, released the results of a survey entitled ‘Justice Under Lockdown’, which was an evaluation of the criminal justice system between March and May 2020. Its findings were unsurprising and an echo of sentiments we would express ourselves – when things are implemented badly, or with no recognition of how it may impact on a suspect or defendant’s access to proper and unfettered legal advice. It concluded that:
- “Suspects in police custody are getting poorer quality legal advice and assistance, as solicitors’ access to their clients and their attendance at police interviews are severely restricted”
- “There is limited adherence to Covid-19 related health and safety standards in police stations, endangering public health, and putting the lives of suspects, defence lawyers, police officers, and their families at risk”
- “Remote hearings are having an adverse effect on defendants’ right to access effective legal assistance, to participate effectively at their own hearings, and to review and challenge information and evidence being presented”
- “Covid-19 is causing lengthy and indeterminate delays to criminal proceedings, and custody time limits are being extended routinely due to those delays, meaning defendants are spending longer in pre-trial detention”
The backlog in court cases that existed before Covid-19 and the official lockdown was significant enough already. According to the Bar Council, with over 37,000 cases outstanding in the Crown Court as of 31st December 2019, that backlog has increased to over 40,500 by 31st May. In the magistrates’ court the position is even worse, with the number of cases remaining to be dealt with increasing from 395,606 on 17th March to over 483,678 by 17th May.
An announcement was made on 1st July by the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland, that 10 additional sites have been identified for “Nightingale Courts”, with consideration being given to courts staying open for longer “to increase the number of cases that can be heard safely on any given day”.
At this stage, the details of what courts will open next, when this will be and when the Nightingale Courts or longer court days will start is a mystery. Details have yet to be released and it seems that the next chapter for the criminal justice system under Covid-19 has yet to be written.
As a firm, we are committed to providing expert advice and assistance wherever and however it may be required. From the outset, while courts were closed for business in every way other than via remote working, we made the necessary investment to ensure that we could continue to support and engage with our clients through these challenging and unprecedented times. We have successfully and effectively used new digital technology to meet with our clients, conduct police interviews where it has been unsafe and ill-advised to attend in person and conduct court hearings in order to robustly defend our client’s interests.
If you have any questions about our social distancing procedures, or you find yourself needing urgent legal assistance, do not hesitate to contact us today by calling 0333 577 0522.