Criminal justice needs investment to support changes

The criminal justice system must be properly resourced to deliver on the promises of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Law Society of England and Wales warned as new measures were published.

Of changes to the pre-charge bail regime in the bill, Law Society president David Greene said: “Victims, witnesses and those accused of crimes need to know investigations and charging will take place within a reasonable time frame.

“An effective pre-charge bail regime is critical for public safety and for justice. There is a risk changes announced today will bounce criminal justice back to a time, pre-2017, when people accused of a crime could be kept on bail by the police with restrictions on their liberties for long periods while investigations proceed at a glacial pace.”

Police circumvented bail time limits introduced in 2017 by dealing with cases outside the bail system using a process of ‘release under investigation’ (RUI). Unlike bail, there are no time limits or conditions on the accused, which often leaves victims and the accused in limbo for an unlimited time. There is evidence that people are released under investigation who are potentially a risk to the public, rather than being put on bail as would be more appropriate. This particularly impacts on victims, who may be targeted again by the same perpetrator.

David Greene said: “The bill gives police more time to investigate under police bail, so fewer people may be released ‘under investigation’, but delays to investigations will continue without sufficient investment.

“Longer pre-charge bail time frames proposed in the bill and the removal of the presumption against bail mean decisions to place a suspect on bail will be taken on a case-by-case basis. It will be important to ensure that the police do not fall back into the habits of the past and routinely put suspects on bail for extended periods.

“Proper supervision of investigations by senior officers must be maintained so that decisions to extend bail are properly assessed. Without adequate resources the system will fail victims of crime, witnesses and defendants alike.”

On measures to make some of the temporary provisions from the coronavirus legislation permanent, in particular those provisions which allow court users to participate remotely via video-link, David Greene said: “The lesson from the pandemic is that remote court hearings work well for some elements of the process, such as for administrative matters, but in other circumstances can degrade the quality of justice.

“For instance, in full trials, there is evidence that people struggle to engage with proceedings, and clients can’t easily have confidential discussions with their lawyer. There is some evidence that decision-makers are less empathetic to those about whom they are making decisions when they see and hear them through a screen.

“The bill should safeguard the quality of justice, for instance excluding hearings where live evidence is being given, and setting conditions that have to be met, as to the parties and the case, before a remote hearing can be held.”

On provisions which will enable custody officers to supervise virtual remand hearings, David Greene said: “Virtual remand hearings have been essential during the pandemic, but face-to-face hearings should be resumed as soon as possible.”

On remote juries, David Greene said: “Our members are likely to be very strongly opposed to the idea of juries sitting other than in the courtroom outside of a pandemic. They see it as an absolute last resort even during the pandemic.”

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