Prosecutors have asked police forces across the country to delay charging serious fraud and oragnised crime suspects to avoid clogging up the court system during the coronavirus lockdown.
Courts across North Staffordshire and the rest of the country have had to adapt due to the Covid-19 outbreak – with magistrates court only hearing video links and remand cases and Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court being conducted over the phone.
New guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has also suggested some suspects sould be released on bail for longer periods of time before being brought to court.
Last week more than half of criminal and civil courts in England and Wales were closed.
A document published on the CPS website said: “The Covid-19 outbreak presents an unprecedented crisis for the criminal justice system in the UK.
“Courts are currently unable to start any new jury or summary trials and most current trials have had to be stopped because of problems over the attendance of victims, witnesses, defendants, advocates and jurors.”
It advises police and prosecutors in England and Wales to prioritise crimes like murder, serious sexual offences, terrorism and some high-risk domestic abuse cases.
It also warns other cases where the suspect is anticipated to deny the charges should wait up to eight weeks for a first court appearance.
Major fraud and serious organised crime investigations all require “lengthy investigation” ahead of a charging decision and are “likely to clog up the court system if charged and actioned at this stage”, the guidance said.
For these and other crimes currently considered “low priority” in light of the crisis – like large, complex and long-running investigations – the document added: “Given the likely backlogs in the crown courts, following delay to so many existing trials, delaying the start of proceedings in these cases makes sense, until a wider listing plan is in place.”
The guidance says during the pandemic, prosecutors must be focused on “genuinely immediate cases” where a suspect needs to be remanded in custody – like serious violent crimes – or where the offence is related to coronavirus.
There is a “general presumption” in favour of bail unless there are “substantial grounds” for believing the suspect could commit more crimes, interfere with witnesses or obstruct the course of justice or fail to surrender to custody, according to the document.
In lower-priority cases, the guidance said police “should charge with a long court bail date”, adding: “This will hopefully allow the current crisis to have passed and thereafter enable a structured timetable for future hearings.”
Where delaying the legal process is recommended, the document adds: “It is not proposed that these offences are simply ignored but they need to be managed alongside the wider pipeline.
“They are lower priority during the Covid-19 crisis, simply because of the assumptions being made around the likely delays and backlogs in work.”
Drop a heart on our special map of gratitude to show your support for our NHS heroes https://www.thanksamillionnhs.co.uk/