14:57, April 14 146 0 theguardian.com

2020-04-14 14:57:05
Suspects to avoid criminal charges in UK during Covid-19 crisis

Suspected offenders are set to avoid criminal charges under unprecedented new guidance to ease the burden on the justice system during the coronavirus outbreak.

The latest guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) tells prosecutors in England and Wales to use alternative options to charges including dropping cases for less serious offences to alleviate pressure on courts. They have also been told to prioritise the most serious criminal cases during the crisis.

With “less serious” crimes prosecutors are asked to consider out of court disposals – such as a caution or community resolution, as well as stopping cases where the public interest does not require a prosecution.

Prosecutors are asked to consider accepting a guilty plea “to some, but not all charges, or to a less serious offence, would enable the court to pass a sentence that matches the seriousness of the offending”. They must also take into account the age of the suspect and how long they have been in custody on remand.

The advice does not apply to serious, including violent, offences.

The chief prosecutor in England and Wales, the director of public prosecutions Max Hill QC, said: “We know very well the impact crime can have on people’s lives, so we want the public to be confident that - even in these very difficult circumstances - justice will be done.

“Our very function is to prosecute, but we cannot ignore the unprecedented challenge facing the criminal justice system.

“We must focus on making sure the most dangerous offenders are dealt with as a priority as we adapt to challenging circumstances. And in less serious cases, it is right that we consider all options available when weighing up the right course of action.

“This will only relate to a very small amount of cases and offences relating to Covid-19 will remain an immediate priority – anybody jeopardising the safety of the public will face the full force of the law.”

Prosecutors have always had to consider whether criminal charges are in the public interest as part of their decision making but for the first time the guidance asks that the pressures that Covid-19 is placing on the system are given special consideration during the pandemic.

The guidance states: “The Covid-19 outbreak presents an unprecedented challenge for the criminal justice system in England and Wales. The scale and seriousness of the situation has created significant difficulties for the criminal justice process.

“The pandemic has already had a significant impact on the criminal justice system, particularly on case progression.

“The majority of ongoing trials had to be stopped because of problems over the attendance of victims, witnesses, defendants, advocates and jurors. Many hearings have been adjourned to ensure compliance with government guidance on social- distancing. The crisis will have a long-term impact on the criminal justice system, particularly in relation to the expanding pipeline of cases waiting to be heard.”

Crown and magistrates’ courts which remain open are only conducting urgent hearings, with cases being heard by phone and video where possible.

There are 157 priority court and tribunal buildings open for essential face-to-face hearings, representing 42% of the 370 crown, magistrates, county and family courts and tribunals across England and Wales.

Earlier guidance issued to prosecutors, said during the pandemic “genuinely immediate cases” where a suspect needs to be remanded in custody – such as serious violent crimes – or where the offence is related to coronavirus must be prioritised.

There is a “general presumption” in favour of bail unless there are “substantial grounds” for believing the suspect could commit more crimes, interfere with witnesses or obstruct the course of justice or fail to surrender to custody, according to the earlier document.

Where delaying the legal process is recommended, the document adds: “It is not proposed that these offences are simply ignored but they need to be managed alongside the wider pipeline.

“They are lower priority during the Covid-19 crisis, simply because of the assumptions being made around the likely delays and backlogs in work.”

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