Some minor crimes may go unpunished under new measures to ease pressure on courts during the coronavirus pandemic.
Prosecutors have been told to prioritise more serious crimes because courts are closing or are dealing with fewer cases to protect the health of jurors, staff, lawyers and defendants.
But they are also being urged to reduce or even avoid some charges in less serious offences, particularly those committed by very young or old suspects.
Those making charging decisions are advised to give extra consideration to the issue of public interest in cases that could be dealt with in reduced court time or by avoiding court altogether.
Max Hill QC, director of public prosecutions, said: “We know very well the impact crime can have on people’s lives, so we want the public to be confident that – even in these very difficult circumstances – justice will be done.
“Our very function is to prosecute, but we cannot ignore the unprecedented challenge facing the criminal justice system.
“We must focus on making sure the most dangerous offenders are dealt with as a priority as we adapt to challenging circumstances. And in less serious cases, it is right that we consider all options available when weighing up the right course of action.
“This will only relate to a very small amount of cases and offences relating to COVID-19 will remain an immediate priority – anybody jeopardising the safety of the public will face the full force of the law.”
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Prosecutors always consider two main issues before bringing charges: is there enough evidence to create a reasonable chance of conviction – and is a prosecution in the public interest?
Options to avoid disputed court hearings could include a defendant accepting a caution or pleading guilty to a lesser charge which would still attract a suitable punishment.
Courts are already working at reduced capacity, many of them holding virtual hearings with judges, lawyers and other key participants dialling in from their homes via Skype.
There is also a block on all new jury trials.
According to the Ministry of Justice, 160 courts and tribunals are still open to the public for face-to-face hearings, but judges are holding remote hearings in another 116 courts and 75 are closed.
The judiciary’s family division, which deals with divorce and disputes over children and money, is also considering whether it is feasible to hold its own remote hearings.
A spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales said: “It may mean a very small percentage of cases are not charged but we will consider all available options to address and mark the offending behaviour.”