Unconvicted defendants awaiting trial in prison face longer stints behind bars as ministers plan to increase custody time limits to ease the pressure of a rising backlog of court cases, the Guardian understands.
The coronavirus lockdown temporarily halted jury trials in March and despite the government creating “nightingale” courts, there are more than 500,000 cases yet to be heard in magistrates and crown courts, an increase of about 100,000 on pre-pandemic levels.
In July, a crown court judge ordered that a suspected drug dealer be released from prison because the shortage of courtrooms meant his trial was unlikely to be heard until next year.
The Guardian understands the custody time limit is to be increased from six months to eight months through secondary legislation to be laid on Monday. Prosecutors are able to apply for custody time limits to be extended but it is in a judge’s power to refuse an application.
The Ministry of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, said: “Rather than deal with the backlog they helped create through a decade of cuts and court closures, the government has been forced to increase the amount of time unconvicted defendants spend locked up. As a result, justice will be further delayed for the victims of crime, as well as defendants.
“This is the result of the government’s incompetence and complete failure to address the crisis in our courts that Labour has been warning about for months.”
The move will raise questions about the impact on prisoner numbers. The MoJ has been reducing the number of inmates held in jail as part of its approach to managing coronavirus across the estate. The total number of prisoners held in England and Wales is about 4,000 lower than in March. But any move to increase the amount of time prisoners are held on remand is likely to slow down the rate at which the total prison estate is reducing.
In a rare criticism of the government in July, Judge Keith Raynor said “many defendants in custody will not be tried until well into 2021”. The judge was speaking at Woolwich crown court during a hearing regarding Richard Graham, 49, who was arrested in December and charged with drug offences. His trial had been due to start in May, but all jury trials were halted in March when lockdown was imposed.
Refusing a third extension to Graham’s custody, Raynor said the lack of available courts was not a good enough reason to keep him in prison.