Crime, Court and COVID!
CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM UPDATE May 2020
Evidence from the Duty Solicitor Call Centre, through whom all requests for representation in the police station must go, shows that arrests are at approximately 60% of pre-lockdown levels.
Our experience is that the police have not been slow to arrest for certain offences, in particular domestic violence. We have also observed that there has been no reluctance to arrest those defendants who are on conditional bail and who are said to be breaching those bail conditions, often curfew requirements. We have had very few requests for advice from those in trouble for breaching the lockdown restrictions. This would appear to show that the police are adopting a common-sense approach, or that we in the North East are doing as we have been told and largely staying at home.
In the early days of the pandemic those asked to attend the police station as a voluntary attender were asked not to attend and dates were re-arranged. The voluntary attender system involves those suspected of committing a criminal offence to be questioned under caution without being arrested. After the initial slow down, things have undoubtedly picked up again. One officer recently observed to us that “There is no end to this any time soon” as his justification for proceeding with an interview for an offence which didn’t seem urgent.
Interview rooms in police stations, whether the defendant is under arrest or a voluntary attender, are small and it is impossible to observe social distancing. Due to these problems, we have developed a COVID-19 protocol in conjunction with the police. This protocol allows us to receive disclosure from the police over the telephone and advise you over the secure telephone confidentially and be present in the interview via a remote link. Using this method we can participate in the interview and advise you throughout but also reduce the human traffic through police stations and those you come into contact with when under arrest. However, not all police stations call outs can be dealt with under the protocol (remotely) and we are still attending police stations in person where necessary.
The work in the Magistrates Courts have been concentrated into North Tyneside Magistrates Court and South Tyneside Magistrates Court, situated at North Shields and South Shields respectively. The concentration of work into these two courts often means that there are significant delays in cases being heard. The overwhelming majority of work being done by the courts are overnight cases, many of which are domestic violence related where the defendant has been refused police bail and the CPS are seeking a remand into custody. The courts continue to hear applications for Domestic Violence Prevention Orders in addition to overnight remands.
Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) have been very eager to point out that some trials are now running again in the Northumbria region. Those trials which have remained in the list were those of a single defendant with few, if any, witnesses. It continues to be the case that the overwhelming majority of trials and hearings where the defendant is on bail are being vacated.
The majority of public focus continues to be on the Crown Court where all jury trials are currently suspended.
Although there are no jury trials, and we have been told there will not be any in May, the court continues to sit. Plea and sentencing hearings are being conducted remotely with advocates beamed into a judge sitting in court. Where the defendant is in custody, they are being beamed in to the courtroom so they can be aware of the progress that is being made in their case or even be sentenced over the video link.
It is clear that a lot of work is being done at a high level to try and establish how jury trials can be restarted. Some of the proposals include trials being conducted in university lecture theatres which would make it far easier to social distance; trials conducted by a Judge only (no jury), unlikely to be popular with defendants and trials presided over with fewer jurors, making social distancing easier. Also proposed has been a single trial conducted over two courtrooms, making social distancing easier to achieve. Efforts have also gone into looking into virtual trials. We think this should be the last resort for all sorts of reasons, mainly the fairness to the defendant of a trial being conducted in this way where the opportunity for the jury to witness and assess the defendant in the flesh.
It is anticipated that HMCTS will try and get jury trials restarted as soon as possible. Where that happens we expect that those cases they will start with will be shorter trials, perhaps only a few days, involving a single defendant and few, if any, witnesses.
It is difficult to see how trials which are listed to run for weeks can proceed at the current time and we are all awaiting with interest the proposals as to how such hearings can be conducted safely. This is clearly a pressing matter for HMTCS as many of the longer trials involve more serious allegations and defendants in custody, where they cannot be expected to remain indefinitely. The law states that defendants in custody must have their trials heard within a set period of around 6 months and this period can only be extended with good reason. Something is going to have to give.
Road Traffic Offences
The process of Road Traffic Act prosecutions is largely automated and appears to be continuing unchecked. Those who were scheduled to appear in court are having their hearings vacated but the police computer continues to churn out requests to identify drivers and requirements to appear in court. There are time limits which apply to various stages in the process and this is why the Prosecution must keep things turning over. If you require advice or representation in respect of a Road Traffic Act offence then please do not hesitate to contact us as the department is still open and is able to accept instructions over the telephone or by video conference and we continue to make court appearances for our clients.
Defendants with underlying health conditions
We have had a number of queries from defendants who have received letters from the NHS telling them that they must “shield” for 12 weeks. If you have received such a letter and you are due to appear in court during the period you are due to be shielding it is very important that you advise us as soon as possible so that we can inform the court and alternative arrangements can be made.
The crime department remains open and we 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 police stations, 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.