Defendants who could face more time in custody if their trial is postponed due to the coronavirus should have their remand status reviewed, a charity said.
Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice, said remand hearings should be held for those being kept in custody if their criminal court trial is likely to be delayed.
It comes as the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett decided that cases lasting longer than three days, which are due to start before the end of April, will be postponed.
Following the announcement, Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland said the Government would look to extend custody time limits for defendants held on remand in such cases.
Responding to the proposal, former magistrate Mrs Gibbs said: “These defendants are all innocent until proven guilty.
“This is people’s liberty [being affected], and it’s a very stressful situation to be on remand because you don’t know what is going to happen.”
She said if trials are postponed, those who are remanded in custody should be “subject to a proper remand hearing” in court to review their status, adding that other options such as electronic tagging could be used to monitor defendants who are released.
Mrs Gibbs said while some defendants are “risky” and need to be kept in custody, there is “quite a high number” on remand for non-violent crimes.
“I think everyone’s remand needs to be reviewed with the aim of getting remand numbers down,” she said.
Crown Prosecution Service guidance states that defendants awaiting trial for more serious crimes – known as indictable offences – can he held in custody for up to 182 days.
The Howard League for Penal Reform charity said in a recent blog post that the Government “could send a message” to judges and magistrates that any decision to remand to custody “should be subject to anxious scrutiny in light of the virus”.
“Remanded prisoners are often the most volatile and face an uncertain future and so are challenging to manage, requiring skilled staff,” the charity said.
On Tuesday, Lord Burnett – the most senior judge in England and Wales – said that no new trial should start in any Crown Court unless it is expected to last for three days or fewer.
The announcement came after pressure mounted on the Government to make clear its strategy for courts, amid growing concerns about the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on court business.
On Wednesday, Mr Buckland said it is estimated that “three quarters” of Crown Court trials will still be able to continue despite the restriction.
In a statement, he said: “For the minority of Crown Court cases that have been listed for trial shortly, but which have not yet commenced and which are also expected to last for more than three days, I have been in close discussion with the Lord Chief Justice in relation to his decision that these cases should now be postponed.
“I recognise the impact that this will have on those witnesses and victims who will have to wait longer to see justice delivered in their cases.
“We will also make arrangements to extend custody time limits for defendants held on remand in these cases.”
Transform Justice, which was founded in 2012, aims to create a “fairer justice system” in the UK.