Crime, Court and COVID part 2
We are available to help you at every stage of your interaction with the criminal justice system, despite the changes which COVID-19 has brought. The information contained in this blog is correct at the time of publishing, however it is subject to frequent change with little warning.
Police Station Representation
The police are conducting interviews in the police station with both people under arrest and people who have been asked to come as Voluntary Attenders.
Police officers, members of the public and solicitors are all expected to wear a mask inside the police station. In our experience however, this is not always being complied with.
If you need legal advice at the police station we can either attend in person or if you feel more comfortable, we can advise you remotely over the telephone. A system has been agreed with the police that has been operational since soon after lockdown was imposed which allows us to advise you over the phone prior to interview and to be present virtually during the interview itself.
Magistrates Court Representation
The Magistrates’ Courts have worked hard to put in place the necessary measures to adapt to the new COVID reality.
The Magistrates’ Courts are now hearing all case types, up to and including trials. Remand hearings have continued to be held throughout the lockdown period, but in recent times first appearances and sentencing appearances are now also going ahead.
The Courts and Tribunal Service have recently announced that in a bid to reduce the backlog of cases they will start to roll out evening Magistrates’ Court sessions, which would run from 5pm-8pm, Monday to Friday. Saturday hearings will also be extended.
If you are required to attend a Magistrates’ Court hearing, you will now be given a set time to arrive, unlike the pre-COVID system when everyone was instructed to arrive for 10am or 2pm.
Our experience is that this new staggered arrival times system is working well. If you attend at your allotted time you will not normally have to wait long for your case to be called, and you will be able to maintain social distancing measures.
The Courts are managing to get through their lists successfully. Hearings themselves can take a little longer than before COVID, as the Magistrates have to retire from the Courtroom more often due to the logistics of social distancing as they can no longer huddle together to discuss cases whilst remaining on the bench.
Anyone who is ordered to engage with the Probation Service may find that the process is slower than before, due to the logistics of remote working. Probation Service appointments are also currently being conducted via telephone rather than face to face.
We have noticed that the Initial Details of the Prosecution Case (the case papers prepared by the Crown Prosecution Service) are reaching us very late recently. This means that on occasion we sometimes only receive full details of the Prosecution case against our clients on the day of the hearing itself. If this does happen, we will still take the time that we need to read your papers properly so that we can advise you fully.
Anyone attending a Magistrates’ Court is expected to wear a mask inside the building while waiting for their case to be called. Masks are not required in the Courtrooms themselves.
Crown Court Representation
Most Crown Court hearings are being conducted via video link, with the Court using the CVP (common video platform).
If you have a Plea and Trial Preparation Hearing (PTPH) and you are intending to plead not guilty, you can expect to be excused from attending Court. Your Barrister will need to have received instructions from you so that they can enter the plea on your behalf. The Court will list the date for your pre-trial review (PTR) hearing. We will update you with all dates for your diary after the PTPH.
At the Pre-Trial Review hearing the Court generally requires all parties to attend. The PTR is held in order to ensure that your matter is on track for trial to avoid any delays on the day.
There is a significant backlog of trials waiting to be heard at the moment across the country, and the North-East is no exception. There are no plans for a Nightingale Court in our region so it seems likely that the backlog will only increase. We have recently had several cases listed for trial in early 2022.
In order to tackle the backlog of Crown Court cases, new extended Crown Court operating hours are being tested at 6 locations across the country. We are waiting to see if this results in a change to Court hours but do not expect any immediate announcements.
Judges are keenly aware of the delays in the court system at the moment and are making clear to Defendants that that will receive credit for an early guilty plea where a trail can be avoided.
The Crown Court is triaging all matters before it, in order to prioritise cases that need to be heard more swiftly. These cases include those where the defendant is in custody or where there are vulnerable witnesses (e.g. children or victims of domestic violence).
For all new Crown Court case from 28 September onwards, defendants can be held in pre-trial custody for a longer period than before. With an eye on the mounting backlog of cases the government has passed temporary legislation which will now allow an unconvicted defendant to be held in pre-trial custody for an extra 56 days, giving a total of 238 days altogether.
The current criteria for a trial to go ahead in compliance with COVID safeguarding measures is no more than 2 defendants for an estimated trial of no more than 2 weeks’ duration. It is very unclear at the moment how multi-handed trials will be able to proceed. Social distancing measures mean that where there are a large number of defendants it may not be possible for them to all appear in the dock at the same time, once security guards are also factored into the equation. There is no obvious solution to this problem but government guidance will be required in the near future as it will become increasingly impossible to ignore this problem.
Our crime department remains open, the team are fully operational and are able to apply for Legal Aid on your behalf, take instructions and make representations to the court without having to physically meet. We continue to attend on all areas within the criminal justice system from police stations to Magistrates Court and Crown Court and we are able to service any type of hearing you may have. Please call us if you have any questions on 0191 232 9547 or complete our contact form.