Criminal trials “worst delays for 20 years”

The UK court system is facing a record build-up of delayed trials and tribunals, with thousands left uncertain over when their legal cases will be heard. In the Crown Court alone, more than 56,000 cases have been postponed due to health and safety concerns, equalling an increase of around 46% in delays since the start of the pandemic. With delays growing day by day, some defendants have been told they might have to wait as long as 18 months before their cases can be heard.

The UK Government has introduced several temporary measures in an attempt to shift the backlog, and return courts to pre-covid efficiency. While some of these relate to social distancing in court buildings and wearing masks during trials, others are less obvious. If you have been charged with a criminal offence and are due to stand trial, you should make sure you are aware of how the pandemic might affect the process.

To help you out, here are the key changes to criminal trials in the UK right now.

Remote communication

Courts in the UK are turning to video technology to prevent further delays to case hearings. Although video links have been used in trials for several years before the pandemic, this method has become commonplace since March last year. At the moment the remote method is only being used in civil cases and criminal trials that don’t require a jury (summary only).

Writing for the UK legal news website (The Legal Journal), journalist Madaline Dunn said: “UK courts have been forced to explore technological innovations to ensure the continuation of some trials. This has been permitted through the Coronavirus Act 2020, which expanded the use of live video and audio links in courts. On 8 April, the highest recorded figure for hearings using audio technology was witnessed, with 3,400 in one day.”

If your case is due to be heard remotely then you should ensure you have a stable internet connection and that your device is charged. The court or tribunal will usually call you before the hearing to check that you know how to join the virtual platform. As with a regular trial, you will be allowed legal representation for the duration of the hearing for which you will likely need a criminal law solicitor to help you navigate the process.

Extended custody time limits

Custody Time Limits regulate how long an unconvicted defendant can be held in pre-trial custody. The rules are in place to protect people from being imprisoned for excessive periods of time before their trial dates.

These limits vary depending on the severity of the alleged crime. Before Covid, people charged with a summary only offence, like common assault or a minor drug crime, could only be held for up to 56 days without trial. For more serious cases, like murder or sexual assault, the custody time limit was 182 days.

However, last month the government brought in temporary legislation to increase the amount of time people could be held in pre-trial custody. Under the new rules, people due to face trial in the Crown Court can now be held for up to 238 days.

These measures were introduced in an attempt to shift the growing backlog of jury trials created by the pandemic, and are due to expire in July 2021.

Nightingale courts

Sixteen temporary courtrooms – known as “Nightingale Courts” have been set up across the UK to help ease the pressure on existing facilities. Although these temporary courtrooms serve the same function as regular courts, many are in unusual places – including the Lowry Theatre in Manchester and Peterborough Cathedral.

Currently, Nightingale Courts have been created at:

  • Bristol Law Society
  • Chester Town Hall
  • East Pallant House
  • Former Fleetwood Magistrates’ Court
  • Leeds, Cloth Hall Court
  • Liverpool, St George’s Hall
  • Middlesbrough Town Hall
  • Middlesbrough, Jury’s Inn
  • Ministry of Justice, 102 Petty France
  • Peterborough Cathedral, Knight’s Chamber
  • Prospero House
  • Salford, Lowry Theatre
  • Swansea Council Chambers
  • Telford Annex
  • Winchester, The Guildhall
  • York, Hilton Hotel

Speaking to the Law Society, president David Greene said: “Increasing capacity for jury trials is clearly the highest priority, and the government still needs to do much more to ramp up this capacity quickly. The significant backlog in the Crown Courts – which pre-dated Covid-19 but has been exacerbated by the pandemic – continues to grow with the latest figures showing 48,713 outstanding cases.”

Funding boost to legal aid

In August the UK government pledged an additional £51m per year for criminal legal aid, helping those experiencing financial hardship to access legal representation.

According to the legal finance experts on the Legal Costs website, people can check whether they are eligible for assistance via the government website, or by contacting a local solicitor. They said:

“If you are eligible for legal aid, there are organisations that offer free assistance to those who have legal issues like Citizens Advice. They may be of some assistance themselves and may also be able to recommend volunteer lawyers or charities that offer free legal advice and/or representation.

You can also look for law centres or free legal advice clinics in your area. These tend to be run by volunteer solicitors/trained legal advisers.”