Government has until November to end barristers’ strike before judges will be justified in releasing prisoners
Judges acted unlawfully by releasing prisoners awaiting trial because of the barristers’ strike, a High Court has ruled, after warning the government has just two months to sort the situation out before courts will be justified in letting out those awaiting hearings.
Crown Court judges in Bristol and Manchester who released prisoners on bail, on the basis it would be unfair to keep them because of delays in the criminal justice system caused by the strike, made errors of law in failing to continue to hold the defendants beyond 182-day custody time limits (CTLs), the High Court said.
However, if the situation remains as it is now, and no resolution to the legal aid dispute is reached by the last week of November 2022, it will be understood that the unavailability of criminal barristers has become a “chronic” or “routine” state of affairs, meaning judges will no longer be blocked from releasing prisoners, the High Court said.
The High Court said judges are also wrong to attribute blame for the ongoing barristers’ strike to either the UK’s Ministry of Justice (MoJ) or the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), or to comment on its underlying causes.
In the Bristol case, Crown Court judge Peter Blair KC released William Dursley, after a pleaded guilty to two counts of stealing a bicycle and assaulting an emergency worker, and pleaded not guilty to three other counts including threatening a person with a cut-throat razor.
At Manchester’s Minshull Street Crown Court, judge Tina Landale released two men, Benjamin Smedley and Adam Mayall, who were both charged with a series of offences including criminal damage, possession of a bladed article, wounding with intent, and affray, following a fight involving a machete, a 12-inch knife, a bat, and a glass bottle.
The High Court ruling comes as barristers today held protests outside of courts in London, Liverpool, and Exeter, as talks between the MoJ and CBA chair Kirsty Brimelow KC continue. Commenting on the negotiations, Brimelow said “talks are progressing at pace this week and remain constructive”.
Crown Court wait times have hit record highs in recent months as the barristers strike has worsened the circa 60,000 case backlog built up during Covid-19, after CBA members voted in favour of plans to run an all-out strike from 5 September.
An MoJ spokesperson said: “We welcome the judgment which recognises that the ongoing strike action does give sufficient cause to extend custody time limits. Judges make bail decisions independently of Government but protecting the public will remain our top priority.”