Terror suspect freed in five hour trial as coronavirus spreads chaos in UK courts and causes backlog of cases – The Sun

A TERROR suspect was spared jail in a trial lasting just five hours, which shines a light on the chaos spreading through UK courts.

The rapid decision emerged in a Sun on Sunday investigation which reveals a backlog of almost 40,000 cases.

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The number is growing by 250 a week and could cost an extra £200million to clear.

Yet, as judges flounder to relieve the pile-up, many are so worried about Covid-19 that the handful of trials which are going ahead are spread across three courtrooms — at a cost of £10,000 a day.

And some experts fear the turmoil could see dangerous criminals get off.

Chris Henley QC, of Carmelite Chambers and a former chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, warned: “If you talk to judges privately they tell you the system will be in chaos for at least a year.

“And if you talk to criminal barristers and solicitors, they will tell you how they have been completely abandoned by the people at the top.”

Last week in the first case of its kind, a terror suspect identified only as QQ was convicted of failing to comply with a control order by not registering at a police station.

He appeared at London’s Old Bailey via video link from Leicester crown court.

The defendant — convicted of witness intimidation in 1999 — faced up to five years in jail. But the judge said he would suspend his sentence, adding: “I have in mind recent observations of the Lord Chief Justice on the impact of people going into custody at this time in the pandemic.”

Such a case would normally last several days. And yesterday justice campaigners slammed the process.


Dr Rakib Ehsano of the Henry Jackson Society said: “It leaves us open to exploitation by extremists who continue to harbour violent intentions.”

Fiyaz Mughal, the former director of Tell Mama, said: “Cases being seen too quickly is one thing, but dangerous potential terrorist cases should not be rushed.

“Also, I’m afraid that even during a pandemic, justice must be done. There shouldn’t be special measures for someone not to go to jail because of the virus — especially not a suspected terrorist.”

In another ruling last week, a man who brutally attacked an NHS worker in Manchester was spared jail after solicitors argued the pandemic would leave him facing a miserable time inside.

Boxing coach Billy McNamara, 27, attacked cowering Emma Bent in her bathroom after he arrived at her house drunk.

But his legal team were able to rely on leniency for offenders due to prison inmates being locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day. Meanwhile the coronavirus crisis is seeing major cases postponed — heaping misery on victims.

Hearings shelved for months include the inquests into the deaths of 11 men in the Shoreham Airshow crash and the trial over the alleged rape and murder of Hull University student Libby Squire.


Researchers at the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy fear waiting times for cases could increase by more than 70 per cent — leading to the highest average waiting time on record. That means defendants and victims forced to wait more than half a year for crown court trials.

To resolve the backlog, the think tank calculates the Government would need to spend up to £110million a year for two years.

Crown courts in seven cities only began reopening on Monday.

Elsewhere nine in ten magistrate court cases are being held via video-link.

Due to social distancing guidelines some cases are reportedly being heard across three locations. With the average daily cost of a court case at £2,700 this means a big trial will now cost £10,000 a day.

Clearing the log-jam will rely on judges, who on average are aged 59, being willing to get back to work while the virus is still spreading.

The crisis could even see thousands of prosecutions for drug, theft, public order and criminal damage offences dropped. Police have also been urged to apply out-of-court measures, such as a caution or curfews, to relieve pressure on the system.

A whistleblower working in the legal system said: “Many courts are in chaos and just have mountains of cases to get through.

“But everything is taking twice as long and many of the judges still aren’t back.

“Courts aren’t the most modern of places at the best of times. So asking them to suddenly embrace technology is presenting problems.

“Everyone has been talking about the impact this virus has on the economy. We are about to see the effects on our criminal justice system.

“For those hell-bent on breaking the law there has never been a better time to do it. There is a fear some will get off scot-free.”

There are also concerns offenders are being released early to ease overcrowding in virus-hit jails.

Meanwhile the legal backlog could see cases held in theatres and university lecture halls.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service are even considering holding trials in cinemas — and sources say English officials may follow suit.

Last week Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said he had instructed officials to look at ways of adapting the NHS model of commandeering additional buildings to allow for social distancing.

Plus, in a move not seen since World War Two, officials are even considering cutting the number of people on juries from 12 to help ensure there are more to go round.

Nick Davis, author of a report for the Institute for Government, said: “The effect of the coronavirus outbreak now means that there will also be huge delays in cases reaching courts — and therefore justice delayed — without more spending.”

A survey saw three-quarters of 3,400 barristers admit they do not think the public can currently access justice at an acceptable level, while just seven per cent thought access was acceptable.

The Bar Council survey also indicates the financial impact of the pandemic — with 53 per cent of self-employed barristers reporting they cannot survive six months.


Almost a third of criminal barristers said they will not be able to continue to practice within three months. In all, 88 per cent may no longer be practicing within a year.

Amanda Pinto QC, Chair of the Bar Council, said: “If we fall into the trap of routinely delaying hearings, adding to the ever-growing backlog of cases and taking work away from those whose livelihoods depend on it, we might very well find there are no barristers left to help pick up the pieces after the crisis subsides.

“Then access to justice in England and Wales will be in real trouble. Our findings highlight the fear that this is already happening.”

The reliance of the use of video-links and Zoom to conduct trials is also already throwing up problems.

Many cases are already reporting issues over connections which can lead to cases being held up.

And those sent down via Zoom could be tempted to appeal after a report by academics indicated trials using the app were unfairly biased against those in a virtual dock.

Academics at the University of Surrey assessed more than 600 cases and found defendants appearing via video-link were less likely to have legal representation compared to ­traditional hearings.

Transform Justice charity Director Penelope Gibbs said: “Is it really worth risking defendants’ rights and justice outcomes to make justice cheaper and more convenient?”

Last night a Ministry of Justice spokesman said of the decision in the QQ case: “Judges explain the reasons for their sentences very carefully in court.

“They take into account aggravating and mitigating factors, along with other factors in sentencing guidelines.”


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