Belfast Telegraph

Do something, judge exhorts Ford over court case delays

By Alan Erwin

A senior judge has questioned why the Justice Minister has not stepped in over delays in prosecuting cases.

In a reference to David Ford's attempts to speed up the system, Mr Justice Weir asked: "Why does he not do something about it?" He also predicted that Public Prosecution Service would move faster if it had to explain itself in court.

His comments came after being told a direction had yet to be finalised on charges against a man arrested last October over a £50,000 cannabis seizure.

Paul Lennon, of Barrons Hill, Camlough, is accused of possessing class B drugs with intent to supply, having criminal property and obstructing police.

Allegations against the 30-year-old centre on cannabis and cash recovered at his home last year.

He denies the charges and claims he had been put under pressure by a Dublin-based gang.

During a bail application counsel for the prosecution confirmed Lennon's files were allocated to a PPS directing officer in February.

Although a date for a preliminary enquiry hearing is expected to be fixed in two weeks time, the judge was told telephone evidence was still awaited.

The judge questioned why the PPS did not proceed with the case if enough other evidence was available.

"We know if it suits the Public Prosecution Service to move at speed they can move at speed, but this isn't satisfactory," he said.

"Time and time again in this bail court I come across instances of inexplicable delay either on the part of the police or, in this case, not the police but the PPS.

"Meanwhile, the minister is frequently to be heard talking about faster, fairer justice. Why does he not do something about it?"

Seeking bail based on the time spent to progress the case, Lennon's lawyer cast doubt on the ability to fix a preliminary enquiry without a direction on the charges. Mr Justice Weir agreed that "there seems to be huge delay in dealing with the most simple analysis of people's mobile phones".

He added: "It seems to me if these directing officers had to go to court and explain themselves they might move more swiftly.

"They are in their office and the court never gets the opportunity of saying to them: 'Really, what is going on here?'"

"It's left to whoever is appearing in court to try and put a face on it."

The judge refused bail, but advised defence lawyers to mount a fresh application if satisfactory progress on a preliminary enquiry was not made within four weeks.

The Department of Justice said: "The draft Justice Bill, which is awaiting Executive approval for its introduction in the Assembly, includes measures to reform the committal process, introduce statutory case management and prosecutorial fines, and encourage earlier guilty pleas. The Bill is part of a wider programme of change to speed up the progression of criminal cases and improve victims' experiences of the justice process."

Background

Last December the Justice Minister was embroiled in a spat with the same judge who claimed forensic science services here were operating "on a shoestring". Mr Justice Weir said test delays were "unacceptable". Mr Ford hit back saying NI experts were involved in the "best possible science" and were "ahead of the game" in UK forensic science services.

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