17:53, November 27 112 0 theguardian.com

2020-11-27 17:53:03
Judge's decision to free teenager due to Covid backlog overruled

A crown court judge, who criticised the government for failing to fund the criminal justice system adequately during the pandemic, should not have freed a defendant awaiting trial, the high court has ruled.

Judge Keith Raynor’s decision in September to release a teenager who had been held on remand for almost a year – and beyond normal custody time limits – was one that was “not open to him”, the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said.

The ruling, by Burnett and Lord Holroyde, reverses Raynor’s judgment at Southwark crown court, which described the Ministry of Justice’s efforts to keep the court going during the emergency as “inadequate”. Raynor had refused to extend the custody time limit for the young man, who had been arrested for possession of heroin, cocaine and cannabis and charged with drug dealing. When he came before Raynor, he had been held in prison on remand for 139 days beyond his original custody time limit.

Raynor’s judgment accused the MoJ and HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) of a “systemic failure” to provide for jury trials to continue. “The lack of money provided by parliament to provide sufficient space for trials to be conducted does not amount to a good nor a sufficient cause to extend the custody time limit in this case,” he said.

The Crown Prosecution Service, however, challenged Raynor’s decision, arguing that the fact that it was “neither practical nor safe” for jury trials to be heard within custody time limits during the pandemic was a “good and sufficient cause” to extend them.

On Friday, Burnett and Holroyde, sitting in the high court, found that Raynor’s conclusions about a lack of funding were “not sustainable”. The judges said: “The problem was not lack of funding nor systemic failure … the problem has been in expanding quickly the number of trial court rooms.”

The backlog of crown court cases grew from 39,000 to 49,000 between March and October. However, the judges noted, HMCTS was provided with £142m in July and a further £83m in September for “a wide range of Covid-related actions”, including adapting courts so jury trials could continue.

“The problems in accelerating the capacity of the system to hold jury trials have been practical and logistical, rather than financial,” Burnett and Holroyde added. “The decision of Judge Raynor that the prosecution had not shown that the need for an extension to the [custody time limit] was due to a good and sufficient cause was one that was not open to him.”

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