Some defendants will be facing “a second Christmas behind bars without the opportunity to prove their innocence”, a legal charity has warned, as the number of remand prisoners in England and Wales detained longer than the legal custody limit continues to rise.
Figures obtained by the charity, Fair Trials, show that, as of 30 June, 3,949 people had been held in prison awaiting trial or sentencing for more than the six-month pre-trial custody time limit, a 10% rise in six months, prompting calls for urgent action to address the problem.
Many people who are held in pre-trial detention eventually walk free. Last year, one in 10 of all those remanded before trial were acquitted and one in four of those remanded in custody were not sent to prison following their trial.
While the figures, provided by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in response to a freedom of information request, are not broken down into those awaiting sentencing or trial, it is exceptionally rare to be held for more than six months awaiting sentence.
The data shows 1,523 people had been held in prisons awaiting trial or sentencing for more than a year, amounting to one in 10 of the remand population, including 475 people who had been held for more than two years.
Griff Ferris, legal and policy officer at Fair Trials, said: “Any system which holds people in prison without trial for years is a cruel, broken system. Some of these people are now facing a second Christmas behind bars without the opportunity to prove their innocence. Others have been waiting for a trial since before the start of the coronavirus pandemic last March, and even since 2019.
“These unacceptable delays undermine our entire justice system, denying justice for both defendants and victims. The government needs to take urgent action to implement structural solutions to this crisis, including releasing people from remand, rather than trying to find ways to put more people into prison.”
The increase in the number of people held beyond the six-month limit comes amid a backlog of cases in the crown courts, which try the most serious offences, of more than 60,000. The Law Society, the professional body for solicitors has reported trials being delayed until 2023. Last month, the justice minister James Cartlidge said the backlog was expected to be approximately 53,000 in 2025. While it has been exacerbated by Covid, it had already increased by 23% in the year leading up to the coronavirus pandemic.
Those remanded in custody awaiting trial are disproportionately black, Asian or from other minority ethnic groups.
People held on remand since March last year have been subjected to conditions that amount to solitary confinement under a restrictive regime, which reduced the time spent out of cells to about 30 minutes a day. Last year, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales said the restrictions risked causing “irreparable damage” to prisoners’ mental health.
Contact with friends, families and others has been restricted to monthly video calls, with many unable to speak to their loved ones at all. Earlier this year, Fair Trials published a report containing first-hand accounts from people held on remand during the pandemic, with one describing the conditions as “inhumane” and another saying they had been treated like animals.
The MoJ has been approached for comment.