More than 3,600 people – almost a third of England’s remand prison population – have been held beyond the legal time limit awaiting trials as the pandemic wreaks havoc on the legal process.
The scale of the backlog has prompted calls for more remand prisoners to be released immediately. Some prisoners have been pleading guilty purely to avoid lengthy pre-trial detention.
The figures was revealed in data provided under the Freedom of Information Act to a campaign group, Fair Trials, which has collected accounts of prisoners struggling with conditions as they await trial.
The issue is expected to be raised in parliament, where the shadow minister for courts and sentencing, Alex Cunningham, has called on the government to rapidly increase the number of temporary “Nightingale” courts.
“It is a national travesty that because of the government’s incompetence, justice is being denied to victims of crime, as well as thousands of people who have not been convicted of any crime but are locked up in prison on remand past the legal time limit – often with no trial date in sight.
The figures obtained by Fair Trials, a legal charity focusing on improving respect for trial rights in criminal cases, were provided by the Ministry of Justice.
They recorded that 3,608 people had been held for six months or longer as of December 2020, and 2,551 people had been held for eight months or longer.
In September the government extended custody time limits (CTLs) – the amount of time that someone can be held on remand – from six to eight months. But as the extended CTL of eight months only came into force in September 2020, none of the people held for longer than six months by December 2020 fall under that extended limit.
Separately, the government’s own advice in October last year said that extending the amount of time unconvicted defendants could await trial in prison would have a disproportionate impact on people who are black, Asian or from other ethnic minorities.
Griff Ferris, the legal and policy officer at Fair Trials, said the justice system was being undermined by the imprisonment of unconvicted people for excessive periods.
“People are being made to suffer these conditions because of the government’s insistence on putting more and more people in prison, and repeated and systematic failures to get trials heard in time,” he said.
“The government must reverse the extension of time limits on pre-trial custody immediately, and implement structural solutions to this crisis aimed at releasing more people, rather than trying find more ways to put more people into prison, which is what it’s trying to do with the policing bill.”
The Ministry of Justice has been approached for comment.
This article first appeared in The Guardian