Unacceptable custody time limits now facing those on remand

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA), has initiated an indefinite strike to increase attention on unacceptable time frames for people being held in custody within the UK justice systems.   The strike action only adds to the existing backlog of approximately 60,000 cases.

Where it is necessary for defendants to be held on remand, ‘custody time limits’ are intended to restrict the amount of time that someone spends in custody before a trial takes place.

Six months is the maximum time for custody in trials at the crown court. The prosecution can request that the court extend the time limit if there are delays in a trial.

This means that custody time limits are frequently extended in practice, sometimes by a significant margin.


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1,777 people on remand were in custody for more than a year. 475 people who are on remand have been held in custody for more then two years. This is particularly evident when you consider the Ministry of Justice statistics 2021 which show that 10% of people on remand are acquitted in court.

Many courts have released defendants who were held on remand after the CBA took an indefinite strike. In one case Judge Peter Blair KC cited “chronic and predictable consequences of long-term underfunding” when refusing to extend custody time limits. This judgment, along with a similar one in Manchester Crown Court, was appealed to High Court in September. It was subsequently reversed.

The High Court overturned the judgment and found that strike action had not been used to justify refusals of extension of custody time limits. The High Court judgment provided the last week of November as the point at which strike action would be “chronic and routine”. If the strike action continues into November, this could justify the release of some defendants who are currently being held on remand until the custody time limits run out.

There are many reasons why a defendant may need to be held on detention before a trial. A defendant who is accused of a serious crime will normally be held on detention before going to trial. Another reason is a prior conviction for serious crimes, or a legitimate chance that a defendant will be convicted while on bail.

These considerations are vital for public safety and the upholding of the rule of law. There is a risk that defendants’ human right to a fair trial could be threatened if there are not enough checks and balances. Habitually extending custody time limits risks undermining core principles around a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

The risk of innocent defendants agreeing to guilty pleas has been a major concern in America regarding pre-trial detention. If the time spent on remand would exceed the sentence for conviction this can factor into defendants’ decision-making.

The US pre-trial detention times are significantly longer than those in the UK. This is a stark reminder of how important it is to strictly adhere to custody time limits. The American Economic Review conducted a 2018 study and found a link between longer pre-trial detention and guilty pleas convictions in the US.

There have been questions about whether defendants should be responsible for the human costs of delays in trials in the UK. Fair Trials, a non-governmental organisation, has been campaigning for the defendant’s rights in criminal cases. Bruno Min, the organisation’s legal director stated “the Government should be taking urgent steps to tackle the underlying causes of the crisis”.

This sentiment was reflected by a government report that was published earlier in the year. The House of Commons Justice Committee determined that the justice system faces wide-ranging funding challenges. Sir Bob Neil MP, the chairman of the committee, stated “the court system is creaking and there needs to be coherent, consistent planning to fix it ”.

The CBA is currently voting on the government’s pay offer. The pay offer would represent a 15% rise for the majority of cases in backlog. Previous offers were criticised for only applying to new cases and not cases in the backlog. This meant it would take many years for the increase.

The outcome of the vote by barristers in the CBA  vote will have a critical effect on government plans to reduce the backlog of cases. Sir Bob Neil identified the importance of a cohesive strategy to address these systemic issues. After decades of cuts, it is crucial that adequate funding be provided to ensure the rights of those who navigate the criminal justice system.

They are currently caught in crossfire.