Prosecutors in England and Wales have been advised to take the current issues resulting from the COVID-19 crisis into account when deciding whether to press charges, under new guidance issued by the Crown Prosecution Service.
The new guidelines state that serious cases should be prioritised and all options should be explored for less serious offences, in order to manage the impact of the pandemic.
In the document, Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill QC called for pragmatism from prosecutors in recognising the unprecedented pressures facing the criminal justice system, while ensuring public confidence is maintained.
He also stressed the guidance would be relevant in only a small number of cases, and that the most dangerous offenders are to continue to be dealt with as a priority.
The majority of ongoing trials have already been suspended due to social distancing rules and issues with attendance by all parties involved.
Under the Coronavirus Act 2020, the use of live video links for criminal proceedings has been extended, but the system is some way off being completely virtual and fully operational.
Juries are also excluded from using live links.
Concerns remain that the outbreak is adding to the backlog of cases in the system, with case progression delayed across the board.
The CPS guidance notes that each case entering the system will expand the pipeline of cases and add to any delays.
To ease the pressures, prosecutors have been directed to consider appropriate use of out-of-court disposals and whether a guilty plea to some charges or to a less serious offence would enable the court to pass a sentence that reflected the gravity of the offence.
In addition, time spent in custody, age and maturity should also be factored in, and defence representatives engaged as appropriate.
In response to the new guidance, chair of the Bar Council, Amanda Pinto QC commented that it was an “inevitable consequence” of the current crisis that some cases have to be prioritised over others due to the existing backlog resulting from the lack of investment in justice over the years.