The remand population is currently at its highest in at least 50 years, and is a major driver of prison overcrowding, surging from 9,600 inmates to 16,200 in just four years as the courts backlog soared. Last year, 35 per cent of self-inflicted deaths in prisons were among those on remand.
But experts have long warned of a lack of available government data on the issue. Despite judges being required to approve an extension every six months, it has been unclear how long people are spending behind bars before trial – as last-minute court delays increasingly see hearings postponed for months.
Against this backdrop, internal government figures, obtained via freedom of information laws by the charity Fair Trials and shared with The Independent in September, appeared to show that at least 150 male suspects – 50 of them Black – had been remanded for 60 months or more, as of 31 December.
Asked about their own figures – branded “just extraordinary” and “Kafkaesque” by experts – the Ministry of Justice said at the time: “These cases involving the longest waits mainly involved complex fraud or were trials with a large number of defendants, that ordinarily take a long time to prosecute.”
But The Independent has now been told that the figures were merely an attempt by officials to estimate how long people are spending on remand, and should not have been published by the government without more explicit caveats.
The data is now understood not to have excluded cases where: a prisoner was on remand for two separate periods, rather than one continuous stretch in custody; and where a prisoner was already in custody due an initial conviction, and was awaiting trial for a separate offence.
As a result, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “There are no prisoners in custody without a conviction who have been on remand longer than five years.”
They added: “The FOI release used by The Independent made clear the underlying figures may contain errors as they are drawn from administrative systems – no such system is ever 100% accurate and up-to-date.
“It cannot be taken as a reflection of the data we have on the criminal justice system which is comprehensive, allows us to run the system effectively and is now published in greater detail than ever before.”
But asked to provide a new breakdown of how long suspects are being held on remand, the Ministry of Justice pointed to a parliamentary statement by Tory peer Lord Bellamy on 26 September, which said: “The methodology for calculating the amount of time spent on custodial remand is currently being reviewed and further clarification will be issued in due course.”
It is “deeply worrying” that the government is unable to say how long people are spending on remand, said Emma Snell, a senior legal fellow at the charity Justice, which last week uncovered evidence of widespread failures in courts when deciding whether to remand or bail suspects.
“Being sent to prison to await trial for months or years leaves deep scars: people lose relationships, homes and jobs while sitting in unsuitable cells without the ability to rehabilitate,” said Ms Snell, adding: “Better public data is a necessary first step to ensuring safe decisions regarding people’s liberty.”
Concerns about a lack of government data have frequently been raised more widely across the criminal justice system.
Tana Adkin KC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association told The Independent: “Ministry of Justice data hasn’t hitherto allowed the government to plan ahead on provision of prison places, courts, court staff, judges and barristers to keep the criminal justice system operating efficiently.
“Witnesses, victims of crime and defendants are all being let down as planning and funding have been lacking for decades now. Data collection and target settings are meaningless for defendants and complainants when the system is underfunded.”
After being urged by MPs on the justice committee last year to ensure there was ring-fenced funding “to expedite work to deliver on its commitments to improve data”, the Ministry of Justice said it had allocated £3m to fund data improvement that year, and would increase funding through to 2025.