The High Court has ruled judges were wrong to release suspected murderers because their six-month custody time limit had expired because of the pay dispute. From this date, the strike is “unlikely” to remain a valid reason to extend the length of time a suspect can wait for trial on remand.
The High Court ruled that current delays caused by the CBA strike can be a “good and sufficient cause” to extend CTLs, but bail must also be considered.
“This will not remain the position for long,” the ruling said.”
Court backlogs, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, have rocketed since the CBA started industrial action in June, with numerous trials being scheduled into 2024.
One lawyer told the Daily Express the situation is a “ticking time bomb” and that if hundreds of suspected criminals were released, the public would lose faith in the criminal justice system.
Criminal lawyer James Oliveira-Agnew said: “I think this would be catastrophic for victims and indeed members of the public to see people accused of murder, or rape, being released.
“What faith are they going to have in the justice system then? Justice has to be seen to be done.
“It is time for Government to deliver”.
Top judges warned there are a “large number of cases” where defendants will soon hit their custody time limits.
They said the crisis – in part fuelled by the huge backlog of cases engulfing the Criminal Justice – cannot be solved by the courts.
Judges said the government could choose to change the law on custody time limits and extend the current crown court period of 182 days.
The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Max Hill KC brought a challenge against decisions made in two separate cases in Bristol and Manchester, where judges refused to extend the custody time limits of three defendants whose trials were delayed due to the unavailability of barristers.
However, they refused to overturn the decision not to extend the custody time limits, saying there was no point in doing so as there is no power to extend those limits which have now expired.
In the ruling, Dame Victoria and Mr Justice Chamberlain said that, for the time being, adjournments to trials resulting from the unavailability of defence counsel “may” be a “good and sufficient cause” to extend custody time limits.
But the judges warned that, if the dispute between the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) and the Government continues beyond the end of November then it is “unlikely” to remain a valid reason.
Ministry of Justice sources said discussions are “ongoing in order to get justice moving again”.
The High Court also said crown court judges should not wade into the political debate over legal aid.
Judge Peter Blair KC, sitting at Bristol crown court earlier this month, ruled that the absence of a lawyer arose out of the “chronic and predictable consequences of long-term underfunding”, highlighting that the Government had “many, many months” to resolve the pay dispute.
Judge Tina Landale reached a similar conclusion in Manchester, while other decisions not to extend custody time limits, which were not part of the judicial review, have been made in Isleworth, Leicester, and Bolton.
The High Court found Judge Blair and Judge Landale “erred in law in concluding that the unavailability of counsel could not constitute a sufficient cause for extending the custody time limit”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We welcome the judgment which recognises that the ongoing strike action does give sufficient cause to extend custody time limits.
“Judges make bail decisions independently of Government but protecting the public will remain our top priority.”
The Daily Express understands there are around 8,760 suspects currently on remand, of which 27 percent are alleged violent offenders.
Another 24 percent of the 8,760 – 2,100 – are on remand for drugs offences, the vast majority of whom will be drug dealers.
The “untried” population has increased by four percent per year.