Defendants could be locked up for longer to tackle jury trial delays caused by the pandemic as the government unveiled an £80m recovery plan for the criminal courts. 

The Ministry of Justice announced on Sunday morning that it will introduce legislation this month increasing the custody time limit from 182 days to 238 days. The ministry said the extension, which will be in force for nine months, would ‘keep dangerous criminals off our streets’ and address the delays to jury trials caused by the pandemic.

Lord chancellor Robert Buckland said: ‘Throughout the pandemic this government has taken the necessary steps to protect the public while ensuring that justice continues to be delivered. This temporary extension to custody time limits will keep victims and the public safe, and we should not apologise for making that our priority.’

The profession's representative bodies expressed concern about the extension.

Law Society president Simon Davis said it was important that defendants, who may be innocent, 'are kept on remand for as short a time as possible, and that victims and witnesses are not kept waiting unnecessarily for a resolution'.

James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: ‘The answer to the justice crisis is not to extend the period of pre-trial detention for all in custody arbitrarily by a third where you penalise the innocent as well as the guilty. To do so invites delay rather than expedition, increases the numbers in prison and places far greater pressures upon those who work there. The extra millions this will cost should be invested in getting other trial centres up and running.’

Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, said: ‘We understand the current issue about ensuring that potentially dangerous criminals are not released because their trial has been very delayed due to the existing backlog of trials exacerbated by Covid-19. However, we are very concerned that this 25% increase in the lawful detention of a potentially innocent person because there aren’t enough courts available to hear their trial does not become a license to push off cases for longer than absolutely necessary.’

Meanwhile, to help the criminal courts recover from the pandemic, the ministry said it will employ 1,600 court staff to support recovery measures. The surprising recruitment move comes two years after briefing documents issued to judges and magistrates revealed that the government’s court modernisation programme could result in the loss of 6,500 jobs by 2022.

The ministry will also open another eight Nightingale courts. Covid-19 operating hours, which are currently being tested at Liverpool Crown Court ahead of further pilots in Hull, Stafford, Cardiff, Snaresbrook, Portsmouth and Reading, could be expanded.

Yesterday’s government announcement included a quote from the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon. The lord chief justice did not comment on the custody time limit extension but said the £80m plan ‘is an important document which gives a clear path towards recovery as the judges and magistrates, in partnership with HM Courts Service, the Ministry of Justice and many others strive to ensure that cases are heard as soon as possible in the public interest and the interests o all those involved in the criminal process.’ 

The Society welcomed several aspects of the plan. However, Davis said: 'When considering any use of extended court hours, the MoJ and HMCTS must ensure that it is making maximum use of normal court hours and the existing court estate, quickly take up further building space and avoid any restrictions on judges sitting while there are court rooms (real, virtual or Nightingale) available.'