COVID-19: UK road traffic collision investigations and how the criminal courts are set to respond
As this is a fast moving topic, please note that this article is current as at 24/03/20. For further information, please contact Naomi North.
With all public services under increasing pressure due to coronavirus (COVID-19), we consider the impact on the investigation and prosecution of road traffic collisions and how the criminal justice system is set to respond.
The effect of COVID-19 on collision rates is difficult to predict especially as the way the pandemic is tackled is changing rapidly. For now, collision rates are likely to drop, particularly following the new measures set out in the Prime Minister’s announcement last night, which include restricting travel to and from work only where this is “absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home”.
Regulations regarding professional driving have already been relaxed to ensure the supply chain continues to operate as efficiently as possible. The most significant example is a relaxation of rules for drivers under the European Union drivers’ hours rules or the GB drivers’ hours rules, in relation to the carriage of goods in all sectors, effective from yesterday until 21 April 2020. Whilst the guidance indicates that this decision is an exceptional contingency measure and must only be used where necessary, we may see an increase in fatigue related collisions.
Over the coming months, police resources are likely to be stretched to their limit as inevitably the number of officers self-isolating and therefore unable to work will increase. There is no doubt this will impact on the priority given to road traffic collision prevention and investigation such as speed enforcement and other initiatives.
The police currently do not attend ‘damage only’ incidents and that practice may extend to minor injury collisions. It seems inevitable that there will be less time for administrative paperwork associated with relatively minor road traffic collisions. It is also anticipated that the impact on resources and the requirements for social distancing will see more witnesses being spoken with over the phone.
Prosecutions for minor collisions are likely to fall and the use of the national driver awareness scheme and fixed penalty notices may well rise as resources start to be diverted elsewhere. Perhaps we will see the introduction of remote driver improvement schemes in line with social distancing guidance.
In terms of serious road traffic collisions, the message from the Metropolitan police is that it is very much business as usual. Forces remain committed to investigating these incidents efficiently. Understandably however, the risks associated with COVID-19 are impacting significantly on the availability of police station representatives and their willingness to attend custody. Alternative methods may therefore need to be considered and implemented to address this.
Longer term it seems inevitable that the timescales for police investigations will be extended. In a system where it can already be 12-18 months for a charging decision, the concern is that this could become much longer. It also means that those key investigations in high value civil claims will become more difficult.
The criminal courts
The criminal courts are already operating at capacity and in reality cases are likely to take even longer to reach trial. It can often take two years for a road traffic case where there is a fatality, to reach trial, and that may be extended by months.
With increasing concern about the appropriateness of juries in a system where social distancing is required, an announcement made yesterday by the Lord Chief Justice sets out the latest position.
In relation to the Crown Courts, the Lord Chief Justice said:
My unequivocal position is that no jury trials or other physical hearings can take place unless it is safe for them to do so. A particular concern is to ensure social distancing in court and in the court building.
The announcement added that:
"This morning no new trials are to start. Jurors summoned for this week are being contacted to ask them to remain at home, and contact the court they are due to attend. They will only be asked to come in for trials where specific arrangements to ensure safety have been put in place. In some cases, this may mean that jurors may be called in to start a new trial later on Monday. All hearings in the Crown Court that can lawfully take place remotely should do so and other hearings not involving a jury should continue if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure distancing."
With regard to existing jury trials, the announcements added that efforts to bring these to a conclusion should continue, ensuring that social distancing and other safety measures are in place. It further states:
“Resident Judges, with HMCTS staff, will determine whether a trial can safely be continued. If it is necessary to adjourn trials already underway for a short period to put those safety measures in place, this must be done.”
With the same considerations in relation to safety, also applying to magistrates courts, the position is that “all hearings that can lawfully take place remotely should do so if the facilities exist.” As the first court to which all criminal cases are referred, where there is an absence of such facilities, this may contribute to further delay.
It seems likely that non urgent hearings, including sentences may well be moved to a later date, exacerbating an already congested system.
To mitigate against delay, we may see a move towards Judges dealing with preliminary hearings and applications administratively, which under the Better Case Management guidance would previously have required all parties to be in attendance. We may also see an increase in the use of technology such as video link or indeed more specific and rigid timeslots for court hearings allowing social distancing to be complied with.
Whilst technology may enable a number of hearings to be held remotely, there will undoubtedly be many people without access to such technology, which will inevitably place limitations on the progress that can be made in certain cases. Either way, it is possible that we will see a shift in behaviour that results in far greater utilisation of technology in the criminal justice system in the years ahead.