Custody time limits

Defining the time limits for an accused in custody awaiting trial

When a person is accused of committing a crime and charged with an offence, they could be remanded in custody or released on bail until their trial begins.

Custody time limits (CTLs) are in place to ensure that unconvicted defendants who are remanded in custody aren’t locked up for too long before their trial starts. CTLs apply to each and every charge and not the offender. Each charge attracts its own CTL.

The different time limits

Section 22 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 (POA 1985), the Prosecution of Offences (CTL) Regulations 1987 and the Criminal Procedure Rules regulate CTLs. The provisions establish the maximum periods of time which an accused can be kept in custody before trial.

The CTL Regulations apply to summary only offences and either way offences to be tried in the magistrates’ court; to indictable offences sent to the Crown Court (indictable only and either way), to voluntary bills and to fresh indictments following an order for a retrial made by the Court of Appeal.

Different periods are applicable depending on whether the offence is summary, triable either way or indictable only.

The current provisions are:

  • 56 days between the first appearance and trial for summary offence;
  • 70 days between the first appearance and summary trial for an offence which is triable either way (the period is reduced to 56 days if the decision for summary trial is taken within 56 days);
  • 182 days if the court allocates a triable either way offence case for Crown Court trial (less any time the defendant has spent in custody of the magistrates’ court prior to sending); or the defendant elects a Crown Court trial and the offence is sent (less any time the defendant has spent in custody of the magistrates’ court in relation to that offence);
  • 182 days between the dates an accused is sent for trial under s 51 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (CDA 1988) for indictable-only offences and the start of trial (less any time spent in custody if remanded by the magistrates’ court).
  • 112 days from the preferment of the Bill if the prosecution is granted a Bill of Indictment under s 2(2)(b) of the Administration of Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1933 by a High Court judge;
  • 112 days following an order by the Court of Appeal for a retrial on a fresh indictment.

When calculating the time limits and their expiry dates, the relevant date for beginning the calculation is the day after the date of first appearance at court. The period extends until midnight on the day of expiry. However, if the expiration date falls on Saturday, Sunday, Christmas day, Good Friday or a Bank holiday, then it will be treated as expiring on the next normal day.

Young offenders

The time limits for young offenders in the Youth Court are:

  • summary only offences: 56 days from the first remand date to the start of the summary trial;
  • either way offences: 56 days where the court is not required to determine venue;
  • either way offences (and those which are indictable only for adults): 56 days where it is decided that the offence is suitable to be heard in the Youth Court;
  • either way offences (and those which are indictable only offences for adults): 182 days (less any time already spent in the custody of the Youth Court) from the date of sending of the case by the Youth Court to the Crown Court under s 51A of CDA 1988;
  • 182 days for homicide, for a firearms offence under s 51A(1) of the Firearms Act 1968 and for an offence under s 29(3) of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 where the prohibited weapon would attract the mandatory sentence.

If the custody time limit expires

When the prosecution fails to comply with the defined time limit, the exceptions to the right to bail listed in Sch 1 of the Bail Act 1976 cease to apply. Therefore, in effect the accused is given an absolute right to bail.

Application for extension

The prosecution is required to avoid delays and ensure the case is prepared and dealt with as quickly as possible and before the relevant time limit expires. However, there is still a right for the prosecution to apply for the limit to be extended.

The application must be made before the expiration of the time limit. In considering whether to grant an extension the courts have regard to the criteria laid down in s 22(3) of the POA 1985. Under that provision the court must be satisfied that the need for the extension is due to any of the three specified conditions:

  1. the illness or absence of the accused, a necessary witness, a judge or a magistrate;
  2. the ordering by the court of separate trials in the case of two or more accused or two or more offences;
  3. some other good or sufficient cause.

The court must be satisfied that the prosecution has acted with all due expedition. In deciding whether the standard of preparation has been met, the court will take into account factors such as the complexity of the issues involved and the preparation necessary. The conduct of the defence and the extent to which the prosecutor has been dependent on others outside his control would also be considered.

In satisfying the court of the conditions above, the prosecution bears the burden to do so on the balance of probabilities. If that burden is satisfied, the court may grant an extension of the time limit.