As the UK prepares to move into the ‘delay phase’, changes are expected to criminal justice procedure. So, what might be expected to change?
In the event of any public disorder, work on low priority criminal investigations may slow or stall entirely as police resources are diverted elsewhere. Most police custody suites hold relatively few individuals and they are generally not held in close proximity, so this should not present any particular difficulties for policing. If police officers are off sick, capacity may be affected, and this again may impact on police work volumes. Precautions already in place, such as not shaking hands and being extra vigilant to observe basic hygiene rules are likely to be emphasised.
Some criminal processes can be changed by way of secondary legislation, so it is possible that custody time limits which regulate the maximum period a person can be held in custody, might be lengthened (The Prosecution of Offences (Custody Time Limits) Regulations 1987). Other processes will need to be changed by way of emergency legislation. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 does not permit changes to ‘criminal proceedings’. The term ‘criminal proceedings’ is not defined in the Act and has been the subject of intense discussion in the past (concerning terrorist provisions), but would likely be interpreted as being the point from charge. Therefore, it is likely that the government will have to introduce further emergency legislation to deal with changes to video-link arrangements and case management, particularly as the use of juries may become too high a risk.
We are however unlikely to see the equivalent of ‘Diplock Courts’ (trial by Judge alone).
Prisoners are held in a large population at close quarters, and this makes the prison estate a high-risk area for the spread of infection. The absence of prison staff due to illness will increase pressures further and may leave some prisons too challenging to manage. The Secretary of State already has powers that would allow for the early release of prisoners, and this may need to happen, no matter how politically unattractive this may seem.
We will have to wait and see what proposals emerge as the Corona Virus spread continues. Be assured, however, that at the forefront of our thinking will be safeguarding of fundamental rights, and we will not hesitate to challenge any processes that threaten to weaken these.
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If you need specialist advice, then get in touch with any member of our criminal team and let us help. We can advise on a plea, defences and potential sentences in a wide range of circumstances.