Terror Cases Run Out Of Courts & Judges

Courts cannot cope with the large number of terrorist cases coming to trial, the senior prosecutor in charge of counter-terrorism has told The Times. Sue Hemming, head of the Crown Prosecution Service’s counter-terrorism division, said there was a backlog of 34 terrorist trials involving 99 defendants.

Plans are under way to create a network of high-security courthouses to alleviate the crisis while a cadre of up to 20 specialist High Court judges has also been nominated to deal specifically with terror trials.

The numbers involved are far in excess of anything the courts have experienced before, even at the height of the IRA’s bombing campaigns.

With Scotland Yard’s Counter-Terrorism Command involved in more than 70 investigations, and admisssions that Britain is now al-Qaeda’s number one target, further arrests and charges are inevitable.

Miss Hemming said: “There are an awful lot of cases and many of them involve multiple defendants. I am not sure our courts were actually geared up for that — with all the security that goes around that — and finding suitable court centres and suitable judges.

“There is work at the moment to look at improving court centres and increase the number of courts that can deal with terrorist-related cases and high-security cases generally.”

Miss Hemming, 42, whose team of specialist terrorism lawyers at the CPS has been increased recently from 11 to 16, is the first senior figure in the legal world to speak out about the difficulties in the system.

The Times understands that courts in the North West and in Yorkshire are being considered for terror trials. A spokesman for the Courts Service said it was “looking at options for locating terrorist trials outside London”. Within London, a growing number of cases will be heard at Woolwich Crown Court, beside Belmarsh prison, where heavily armed police, body scanners and bag searches are a common occurrence.

Defendants on remand at the prison are led to the court through a tunnel, avoiding the need for armoured convoys and police escorts on the streets. But few other courthouses are similarly located close to high-security jails.

The panel of specialist judges has been assembled under new arrangements outlined by Sir Igor Judge, president of the Queen’s Bench Division.

Sir Igor has also issued a “protocol” to judges on how to run terrorism cases more efficiently. Under the new agreement, both prosecution and defence are expected to lay their cards on the table in advance of trial and in line with a laid-down timetable.

But Miss Hemming argued that further improvements could be made by eliminating of what she called “games” by defence lawyers.

She said defence teams appeared to be constantly looking for a “PII bullseye” — a piece of evidence covered by public interest immunity that cannot not be disclosed for security reasons but could halt a trial.

Miss Hemming added: “You need tough decision-making by the judges to influence the defence to co-operate more. If they know they’re going to get nowhere with a fishing expedition or they’re going to get nowhere with an argument that’s just designed to cause problems for the trial, then that will make the system run more smoothly.”

Prosecutors have also raised the issue of firms of solicitors with a small number of lawyers holding up the trial system by taking on larger numbers of clients in overlapping cases than they are equipped to deal with. Trials are currently taking 18 months or more to come to court, but that could be speeded up with the introduction of mandatory pretrial hearings where timetables can be set and court orders made.

Among the cases currently in the system are more than a dozen people accused of taking part in a plot to blow up trans-atlantic airliners in mid-flight and the case of several defendants accused of engaging in radicalisation and terrorist training.