Prosecutors have been urged to delay bringing charges against serious fraud and organised crime suspects to avoid clogging up the court system during the coronavirus outbreak.
The guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) also suggests some suspects should be released on bail for longer periods of time before they are due to appear in court to help the system cope.
Last week more than half of criminal and civil courts in England and Wales were closed. The crown and magistrates courts which remain open are only conducting urgent hearings with cases being heard by phone and video where possible.
Courts are currently unable to start any new jury or summary trials and most current trials have had to be stopped because of problems over the attendance of victims, witnesses, defendants, advocates and jurorsCPS document
A document published on the CPS website said: “The Covid-19 outbreak presents an unprecedented crisis for the criminal justice system in the UK.
“Courts are currently unable to start any new jury or summary trials and most current trials have had to be stopped because of problems over the attendance of victims, witnesses, defendants, advocates and jurors.”
It advises police and prosecutors in England and Wales to prioritise crimes like murder, serious sexual offences, terrorism and some high-risk domestic abuse cases.
It also warns other cases where the suspect is anticipated to deny the charges should wait up to eight weeks for a first court appearance.
Major fraud and serious organised crime investigations all require “lengthy investigation” ahead of a charging decision and are “likely to clog up the court system if charged and actioned at this stage”, the guidance said.
For these and other crimes currently considered “low priority” in light of the crisis – like large, complex and long-running investigations – the document added: “Given the likely backlogs in the crown courts, following delay to so many existing trials, delaying the start of proceedings in these cases makes sense, until a wider listing plan is in place.”
The guidance says during the pandemic, prosecutors must be focused on “genuinely immediate cases” where a suspect needs to be remanded in custody – like serious violent crimes – or where the offence is related to coronavirus.
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 document.
In lower-priority cases, the guidance said police “should charge with a long court bail date”, adding: “This will hopefully allow the current crisis to have passed and thereafter enable a structured timetable for future hearings.”
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.”
A CPS spokesman said: “We have no intention of letting crime go unpunished”, but added: “Priority must be given to the most serious cases to make sure dangerous offenders are dealt with quickly.”
The body’s legal director Sue Hemming urged the public to continue reporting crime.