With only 7% of criminal justice voluntary sector organisations currently fully functional, and police forces across the country having to adapt to new powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020, the outbreak of COVID-19 is posing unprecedented challenges for the entire criminal justice sector.
Questioning at a Distance
As the country continues to adapt to social distancing, and gets used to the idea that this might be the new normal for months to come, The Law Society, Crown Prosecutive Service (CPS) and National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) have teamed up to develop the new COVID-19 interview protocol. Broken down in a useful flowchart, the new guidance looks at different responses which may be appropriate for different kinds of suspects, and how to ensure all rights are protected.
Charging guidance has also been altered for this time. Laid out in three case categories, Immediate, High Priority, and Other, suspects that fall into the latter two categories may be released on non-custody bail agreements or released under investigation.
Protocol guidance is being reviewed on a monthly basis, making it is as up to date as possible with wider guidance around this current health crisis, and ensuring it works for frontline criminal justice staff. Following feedback from police and the Home Office, recent amendments include the provision for defence practitioners to “attend” police interviews by phone in certain circumstances.
Adapting Criminal Proceedings
New guidelines also extend to the work of courts, with legislation allowing remote audio and video participation, including for civil and family hearings. The work of courts and tribunals is being consolidated into fewer buildings, while all jury trials have been halted for the foreseeable future. No new jury trials are expected to begin until public health advice evolves. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) are keeping a close watch on these adaptations, with fears around the potential for protected groups to become further marginalised if their needs are not met as part of these rapid changes to hearing procedures.
While this is vital to protect those working in the criminal justice sector, as well as those involved in proceedings as defendants and witnesses, there are concerns that this partial lockdown of the criminal justice system could cause a victims crisis. As a backlog of cases inevitably grows through this time, a perceived reduced access to justice threatens to prolong victims’ trauma. This is particularly the case for those experiencing crimes that have risen since lockdown began, including domestic abuse.
As concerns continue over perceptions of the system’s legitimacy through this crisis, the HM Courts and Tribunals Service has been publishing daily updates on their operational position, which has now become a weekly report.
The Balance of Protection
Prisons have also been highly affected by the ongoing situation. A majority of staff have already had to self-isolate, causing challenges around maintaining a safe and effective prison operation. Not only is this difficult for staff, creating a larger, more stressful workload, but often inmates rely on the presence of significant staff numbers for their own safety.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is supporting prisons by installing temporary cells as a way of providing additional space to support better social distancing. In addition, some prisoners will be released early, based on risk assessments. Pregnant women in custody, and those who pose a low level risk of harm to the public are among those included in individuals being considered for early release.
Confidence around these decisions however has to be high, and based on thorough analysis. Recently six inmates were released by mistake, which is not a misstep the sector can afford to repeat.
As demonstrated in research by Clinks, many of the voluntary sector organisations that provide vital rehabilitation services both in prisons and in the community are having to put important work on hold. Staff are not able to visit prisons, and only 20% of those surveyed are leaving home to deliver frontline services.
As such, many in the sector have been furloughed, which means less work can be done now on planning support for service users once this COVID-19 crisis ends. There is a danger of relationships with volunteers also breaking down through this time, as they find themselves redundant, but this is something the criminal justice sector cannot afford if vital support services are still to exist for offenders, and victims, as we enter into life after COVID-19.
At this time of global uncertainty, safety must be paramount. Delivering that safety while still guaranteeing operations that form the bedrock of society is no less difficult for the criminal justice sector than for any other serving diverse needs and expectations.