Judges must ‘tread carefully’ if they are granted powers to control the length of police investigations, the senior presiding judge for England and Wales has said in response to human rights organisation Justice’s report on complex and lengthy criminal trials.

The report recommends that police investigations should have a time limit of 12 months from the first interview with a suspect.

After 12 months a suspect could apply to the local resident judge to review the investigation ‘with the power to order an investigation cease if continuation is deemed unreasonable’.

However, at an event to publish the report, Lord Justice Fulford (pictured) questioned ‘whether it would truly be appropriate for a judge to control the length of time that an investigation lasts’.

‘This would arguably be a new world for us,’ he added. Fulford acknowledged that judges already issue warrants and the extension of pre-trial detention. But he warned: ‘The judiciary need to tread carefully when invited into pastures where wolves, rather than sheep, may dwell.’

Justice’s report states that problems associated with complex and lengthy criminal trials persist despite ‘various’ reviews and protocols.

A recent National Audit Office investigation into the efficiency of the criminal justice system shows that the number of sexual offences cases in the Crown court has risen by 12% in the past five years.

Prosecutions for other serious offences that can involve complex evidence and multiple defendants, such as terrorism, organised crime, drugs and fraud, have also increased.

Justice’s working party, chaired by former director of public prosecutions Sir David Calvert-Smith, recommends that a trial judge be assigned from plea and trial-preparation hearing ‘who robustly manages the case and identifies the issues as early as possible, and where appropriate a commercial court judge with criminal experience’.

Evidence should be presented electronically in all complex and lengthy trials and disclosed to defence counsel ‘so its accuracy can be checked well ahead of trial’.

Trial judges ‘should be aware’ of jurors’ and parties’ unavoidable appointments and holidays. Juror ‘alternates’ should be engaged. The jury should be given a ‘dedicated’ room to ‘discuss and review’ evidence.

The report also recommends that jurors receive additional written material to help them understand the legal issues involved, including parties’ pleadings, legal directions, photos of witnesses and a ‘neutral’ summary of their evidence.

Fulford said the report was ‘beyond doubt a mine of really fantastic ideas’.

He asked the event ‘if we are in danger of missing a trick’ by not integrating some of the report’s recommendations into a cross-agency initiative to build a single case management system for the Crown Prosecution Service and HM Courts and Tribunals Service, entitled ‘Common Platform’.

Through the platform, which is in the early development stage, case files will start when the police gather evidence, and all parties will have access when needed.

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