HC Deb 06 June 1996 vol 278 cc503-4W
Mr. Bill Michie

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what action he intends to take to reduce the length of time prisoners are held on remand in custody awaiting trial. [30269]

Mr. Streeter

I have been asked to reply.

The question concerns a specific operational matter on which the chief executive of the Court Service is best placed to provide an answer and I have accordingly asked the chief executive to reply direct.

Letter from Michael Huebner to Mr. Bill Michie, dated 6 June 1996: The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, has asked me to reply to your Question about what action has been taken to reduce the delays in arranging the trials of defendants in custody. In the financial year 1995/96, the Crown Court sat a record number of 88.775 days, an increase on the previous year of 648 days, and although the number of outstanding cases had fallen substantially by the end of the year, it is planned to maintain this level and to sit 88,318 days in 1996/97. Since January 1996, all cases committed to the Crown Court by magistrates' courts are automatically given a date for a plea and directions earing (and when the defendant is in custody, this is within four weeks of committal). This procedure ensures that all cases are subject to judicial management at an early stage. This enables the parties immediately to raise with the judge, any problems which might cause delay. At this hearing, the defendant has the opportunity to enter a plea. Defendants who pleads guilty, are sentenced immediately thus reducing the time spent on remand; if a plea of not guilty is entered, the court is required to bear in mind the statutory custody time limits which require that a date for trial he fixed within sixteen weeks of the date of committal unless the judge extends that period. The prosecution and the defence are expected to be able to tell the court what dates their witnesses are available to give evidence so that the trial can begin on the date arranged. In general, cases where the defendant is in custody have priority over cases where defendants are on bail. When a trial date cannot be arranged within sixteen weeks from committal—for example if key witnesses are not available within that time—the reasons for this are recorded and a further hearing is fixed to review progress and to fix a date for trial. In August 1995, a new system of collecting information n the reasons for delay in cases where the defendant is in custody was introduced in all Crown Court centres. Detailed information is reported to regional managers monthly and senior managers receive reports on individual cases that are not heard within sixteen weeks. Senior managers also discuss their courts performance in reducing delay at regular reviews with me. In addition to the administrative action to the monitors delays, senior judges in the courts and the Circuit Presiding Judges are provided with details on a monthly basis of custody cases which have not been dealt with within 16 weeks of committal. The combined effect of these initiatives has been to reduce waiting times for all cases, but particularly those for defendants in custody. The average waiting time for custody cases is now 11.4 weeks compared with 13.4 weeks for the financial year 1994/95 and the Court Service expects waiting times to continue to fall In addition to maintaining the high level of sittings mentioned above, the target level for the key performance indicator of 70% of all defendants to be dealt with within 16 weeks of committal, has been increased to 75% for 1996/97.

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