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Police and prosecutors told by CPS and NPCC to delay charges

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) have told prosecutors to delay charges so as not to “clog up the court system”.

The NPCC and CPS guidance also suggests releasing some suspects on bail for longer periods before they are due back in court.

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."

The CPS advises police and prosecutors to prioritise serious crimes such as murder, sexual offences, terrorism and high-risk domestic abuse cases. It warns other cases where the suspect is expected to deny the charges should wait up to eight weeks before a first court appearance.

It recommends delaying “low priority” crimes such as major fraud and serious organised crime investigations because they require “lengthy investigation” ahead of a charging decision.

The CPS document reads: "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."

Guidance and criteria for crime priorities has already been issued to all UK forces. Police have now been asked to prioritise cases into three different categories: immediate, high priority and other. Immediate cases are likely to be ones where the perpetrator is a high-risk to the public. Cases related to Covid-19 will also be treated as immediate, such as assaults on key workers and violation of the Public Protection Act.

High priority cases will still be processed by the CPS, but at a slower pace due to the prioritisation of immediate ones.

The CPS has also updated guidance on how many days before a case is expected to come to court. For a first hearing it would 14 days after charge if a not guilty plea was anticipated and 28 for a guilty plea. These have now been doubled to 28 and 56.

Cases which are not high priority or immediate which previously stood at 42 days has been doubled to 84.

A CPS spokesperson said: “We are facing unprecedented challenges to the CJS but our message is clear – we have no intention of letting crime go unpunished.

“However, priority must be given to the most serious cases to make sure dangerous offenders are dealt with quickly, this is why we have worked with police colleagues to give clear guidelines on this.

“Offences which relate to Covid-19, including assaults on emergency workers, will be treated as high priority.”

Sue Hemming, CPS Legal Director said: “Essential work to deliver justice continues despite the challenges of #COVID19. It is right we should try to prioritise the most serious cases to make sure dangerous offenders are dealt with quickly.

However, this does not mean crimes will go unpunished and all offences, including fraud and organised crime should be reported in the usual way.”

More than half of criminal and civil courts in England and Wales were closed last week. The crown and magistrates courts remain open but are only conducting urgent hearings with cases being heard by phone and video where possible.

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