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How long can a court case stay open in the UK?

Facing a court case of any type can be a very intimidating experience, and those feelings are only made worse when you are worried about how long the case will last. While there is no formal maximum time that a trial can take in the UK (due to the requirement that everyone gets a fair trial and, if the matter is so complicated as to demand a trial of even a year or longer, then that is what the court shall facilitate), there are several guidelines around charging and trial timings that you can use to help predict how long your case might last. In this article, we provide an outline of some of these key timings along with answers to common questions about what might expedite or lengthen a trial.

How long do the CPS have to start criminal proceedings against someone?

The first thing that will impact how long a criminal matter (charging, trial, sentencing, etc.) will take to resolve is the charging deadline. This is also known as the ‘statute of limitations’ for an offence.

Under the Magistrates Courts Act of 1980, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has six months from the date of the alleged offence in which to bring criminal proceedings against a suspected offender, if the matter is to be tried by a magistrate.

If, however, the matter is an either-way offence to be tried in the Crown Court or an indictable offence (that in any case has to be tried in the Crown Court), then there is no statute of limitations and thus the CPS can bring charges whenever they feel they have sufficient evidence to secure a conviction. This could be years or even decades after the alleged offence.

There is no limit on the charging period for serious crimes because it would be unjust if, for example, someone committed murder several decades ago and managed to ultimately get away with it solely because of a legal technicality.

Note that the statute of limitations for civil cases are different and vary depending on the specific complaint.

Are the charging rules different for traffic offences?

In short, yes. Under ​​Section 1 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, there is a requirement that a Notice of Intended Prosecution (NIP) be served within 14 days of suspected offences being committed. If the NIP is not sent (note it does not have to be received in the post by the suspect within 14 days) within 14 days, it is likely the case will not be allowed to go ahead.

There are some exceptions to this, such as if the car was not being driven by the registered keeper or if a company car was being used, and these exist to allow police sufficient time to investigate matters fully.

What factors impact the length of a court case?

There are numerous factors that can influence the duration of a court case in the UK. While the uncertainty does not go away by learning these factors, knowing them can at least help you to set realistic expectations and navigate the process more effectively.

Here are some factors to consider:

  • The complexity of the case. Complex cases involving multiple parties, extensive evidence, or complicated legal issues obviously tend to take longer than simpler cases. A straightforward assault case might be resolved in a matter of weeks, while a complex financial fraud case could span several years.
  • The responsiveness and cooperation of the parties involved greatly impacts the timeline of a court case. If parties are slow to respond, fail to comply with court orders, or engage in delaying tactics, this can significantly prolong the case and due to protections in place for everyone else when it comes to serving documents, there is not much a court or the CPS can do about it.
  • The quality of legal representation. Experienced lawyers may be able to navigate the process more efficiently, while those unfamiliar with the specific area of law or the court system typically take longer.
  • The court’s caseload. If the court is particularly busy, it will take longer to schedule hearings and trials, slowing down the progress of the case.
  • Delays, such as the unavailability of a witness, illness of a party or their lawyer, or a request for more time to prepare. Each delay or adjournment extends the duration of the case.

If a party appeals a court’s decision, the case will continue until the appeal is resolved. This can add months or even years to the duration of the case.

Any good solicitor will be cognisant of these factors and will continually update you about the best case strategy for your defence depending on how matters play out.

Do court case timings change depending on the court?

Yes, they do. Generally speaking, matters that are less serious and less complex are tried in the Magistrates court and there you can typically expect a case to wrap up within two months. In the Crown Court, however, there is much less certainty and it is hard to pinpoint exactly how long your case might take.

Note that some data is available for case processing times in specific regions. As an example, see here for data on how long cases took to resolve in Humberside. Using a search engine or asking your local police department is the best way to get more information on your area.

Will a court case be cancelled if it takes too long?

Unfortunately for defendants, there is no formal limit on how long a court case will stay open and that means you could be waiting months or even years for a verdict. As frustrating and unpredictable as this makes things, having an open-ended timeframe actually serves a very important public function.

Every case is different, every witness is different, and indeed every defendant is different. For this reason, it would be against the interests of justice for the government to place what could only be arbitrary time limits on cases.

Judges already do as much as possible to ensure that cases proceed as swiftly as possible, and your solicitor and barrister will be attempting to resolve matters as quickly as possible, too, so it is best just to be patient and rest assured that things are progressing as they should.

Can solicitors and barristers expedite a case?

While any legal representative is, strictly speaking, unable to influence how cases are scheduled in court, there are some tactics they can employ in preparing for and defending a case that can speed matters up.

These include:

  • Early and thorough preparation. It stands to reason that preparing for the case as early as possible can help avoid delays. This includes gathering evidence, identifying witnesses, and understanding the legal issues involved. Thorough preparation can also make the case stronger and could lead to a quicker resolution. As a defendant, you have a role in helping your legal representation to prepare well.
  • Effective communication. Lawyers may have a reputation for being wordy in their communications, but most are actually only trying to say the minimum to get the case to resolution as quickly as possible. Your legal representative will be communicating as effective and efficiently as they can with the courts and other key stakeholders (like witnesses). Prompt responses to requests for information or action will keep the process moving along.
  • Active court management. Although your legal representative will not have the last word on the scheduling or procedure of the case, they do have some influence. Lawyers can use court management techniques, such as seeking directions from the court for the case’s management, proposing a timetable for the case, or applying for specific pre-trial hearings to clarify issues, to help speed things along at various stages of a court case.

It is understandable that you should get frustrated about how long a case is taking if there are delays outside of your control. Lawyers feel the same frustration as delays in cases impact their other clients, too. The best way to approach case delays is by trying to understand the reason for the delay and then being patient as your legal team (and the courts) work hard to proceed matters.

Where to get more help

If you have been waiting a long time to be charged or are concerned about the length of time that a court case is taking, getting help from an experienced criminal defence solicitor is the best option. Solicitors deal with case delays for all kinds of reasons and they will be able to advise you on how to craft your defence strategy around and present or potential factors that may influence the timeline of the case. For a free, impartial, and non-judgemental conversation about your options, get in touch with the team at Stuart Miller Solicitors today.

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