Police to deal with more cases as prosecutors seek to avoid trials
Police will deal with an increasing number of cases using fines, cautions or community resolutions following new guidance issued by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) advising prosecutors to consider all possible alternatives to court proceedings in less serious criminal cases.
CPS lawyers must now give extra consideration to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic when deciding the most proportionate response in every case. They are to review both new and existing cases on their own merits and consider every available course of action to avoid taking cases to trial.
In addition to sending cases back to the police, this could also mean accepting a guilty plea to a different offence if prosecutors are satisfied that a sentence which meets the seriousness of the offending could be passed. The guidance will not affect the most serious or violent crimes.
Noting that the coronavirus had “created significant difficulties” for prosecutors, the guidance said: “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.”
Before the Covid-19 outbreak there was already a backlog of more than 37,400 Crown Court cases and the number is expected to grow significantly during the lockdown as no jury trials are currently being held.
The cases most likely to be dealt with by alternative means include those where an offender’s sentence would be shorter than the time they would spend on remand in prison awaiting trial. More than half of court buildings in England and Wales have been shut because of coronavirus, and those still open are running a skeleton operation, hearing only the most urgent cases.
Max Hill QC, Director of Public Prosecutions 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 is 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.”
The new guidance clarifies how to apply the Code for Crown Prosecutors during the current public health emergency and follows on from new Interim Charging Guidance published jointly by National Police Chiefs’ Council and CPS last week.
This asked police to prioritise cases they are considering for charge to focus on dealing with the most dangerous offenders and serious cases at a time when the courts are not able to operate at normal capacity.
It classed crimes such as murder, robbery, terrorism, sex attacks, domestic abuse and coronavirus-related offences as the most serious, and historical investigations, common assault, criminal damage and serious fraud among the offences of least priority.
The guidance says there should be a “general presumption” in favour of bail rather than remanding people in custody, and that in lower-priority cases, police “should charge with a long court bail date”.