Prosecutors have been told to think carefully about the pressures that Covid-19 is placing on the criminal justice system when they make charging decisions. Fresh guidance published by the Crown Prosecution Service yesterday states that serious cases should be prioritised to manage the impact of the pandemic and all options should be explored for less serious offences.
Max Hill QC, director of public prosecutions, said the public should be confident that justice will be done ‘but we cannot ignore the unprecedented challenge facing the criminal justice system’.
The guidance states that the majority of ongoing trials have stopped because of problems with victims, witnesses, defendants, advocates and jurors attending. Social distancing rules mean courts cannot operate like normal. The Coronavirus Act 2020 has extended the use of live links in criminal proceedings, but there are ‘significant challenges’ for fully virtual courts and juries are excluded from using live links.
The pandemic is expanding the pipeline of cases waiting to be heard and case progression is likely to be delayed. Prosecutors are told that each case that enters the system will expand the pipeline and delay further.
They should consider whether out-of-court disposals could be appropriate, and whether a guilty plea to some charges or to a less serious offence would enable the court to pass a sentence that reflected the gravity of the offence. Consideration should be given to time spent in custody, age and maturity. Where appropriate, they should engage with defence representatives.
The DPP said: ‘We must focus is on making sure the most dangerous offenders are dealt with as a priority as we adapt to challenging circumstances. And in less serious cases, it is right that we consider all options available when weighing up the right course of action. This will only relate to a very small amount of cases and offences relating to Covid-19 will remain an immediate priority - anybody jeopardising the safety of the public will face the full force of the law.’
Last week, a criminal defence solicitor spoke about the ‘unnecessary risk’ of coronavirus created by a decision to arrest and charge a group of people, including her 17-year-old client, for being in enclosed premises.
Law Society president Simon Davis said it was appropriate to prioritise the most serious cases given overall court capacity has reduced because of safety measures.
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, said the existing backlog, from lack of investment in justice over the years, already created a huge strain on the system 'and now, with the best will in the world, it is unrealistic to think that the police and CPS can continue as though Covid-19 doesn't exist'. It was an 'inevitable consequence' of the pandemic that some cases must be priotised over others.