Innocent people are being held in prison for months without trial as justice is delayed for victims amid mounting court backlogs, campaigners have said.
The number of outstanding criminal cases in England and Wales was mounting before the coronavirus pandemic because of government cuts to court sitting days, and has rocketed to more than 500,000 due to the pandemic.
The resulting delays have caused ministers to create a controversial law extending the time people can be held before trials, which are now being scheduled into spring 2022.
Temporary legislation, which will come into force on 28 September, will allow people to be held for 238 days – eight months – rather than the current 182, without an extension.
The Ministry of Justice said the change would “protect victims and keep dangerous criminals off our streets”.
But the Fair Trials campaign group said people were “suffering as a result of the government's failure to properly resource the justice system”.
It lodged a freedom of information request to find out how many people had been held in custody over the normal time limit since March, but the Crown Prosecution Service and Ministry of Justice said they did not hold the data.
“Innocent people are being held for months in prison awaiting their trials, ignored by an underfunded and crumbling criminal justice system,” said Griff Ferris, legal and policy officer for Fair Trials.
“This is even more worrying when the government admits that it doesn’t actually know how many people are currently being held for excessive periods.
“We need a properly resourced justice system to reduce the backlog of cases, and for low-risk defendants to be released from pre-trial detention.”
Fair Trials said it had conducted a survey of criminal justice professionals, including solicitors, barristers and magistrates, that indicated custody time limits were being “extended routinely as a direct result of delays to trial proceedings".
Days after the new law was announced, a judge at Woolwich Crown Court refused to keep a 19-year-old defendant who had been held for almost a year without trial in jail.
Judge Raynor said: “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.”
At the same time, solicitors have raised alarm that defendants being held on remand in prison are having to wait up to 10 weeks to see legal representatives.
Richard Atkinson, co-chair of the Law Society's criminal law committee, said he was aware of cases where solicitors have been forced to join waiting lists of nearly two-and-a-half months just to secure a one-hour video appointment because face-to-face meetings had been stopped.
“You can only spend two hours a month with your client,” he added. "If it is a paper-heavy case, that's just woefully inadequate.
“A 10-week delay means it is impossible to meet timetables and time limits for service of defence statements set by courts in order to facilitate the matter through the court.
“The state at present is very alarming with the time it is taking for legal visits to be booked and lawyers getting access to their clients.
“Hearings are being put back even as a matter of routine because they have no time to see their client.”
Containing coronavirus in jails has also resulted in some prisoners spending increased amounts of time in their cells, with a significant reduction in visits.
“Some are clearly very anxious about the delay,” Mr Atkinson said. “The conditions during Covid have not been great, they are in their cells for 23 hours a day in some circumstances.”
A spokesperson for the Prison Service said the restrictions on face-to-face meetings “undoubtedly saved lives” and that it was working hard to ensure legal advice continued remotely.
"We provided more than 1,000 extra telephone handsets and 500 video meeting rooms, and we are further increasing video capacity significantly over the coming months,” a statement added.
The Ministry of Justice said that cases including domestic abuse and child protection were being prioritised for court hearings, and that an £80m plan was aiming to boost capacity to process the backlog.
It said 1,600 new staff would be employed to support the recovery, that more “Nightingale courts” would be set up in alternative buildings and courtrooms were being adapted to allow more trials to take place in line with coronavirus rules.
Announcing the custody time limit extension earlier this month, the justice secretary said it would “keep victims and the public safe”.
Robert Buckland added: “At the same time, the measures I have announced will get the criminal courts system back to where it needs to be – reducing delays and delivering speedier justice for all.”
The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said the judiciary and government were “striving to ensure that cases are heard as soon as possible in the public interest and the interests of all those involved in the criminal process”.
Longer custody time limits will apply to anyone remanded in custody for an offence deemed serious enough for a court trial, and the legislation will expire after nine months.
Additional reporting by PA