Delays can’t be explained away by Covid alone
Northern Ireland’s Crown Court system is so slow it is “denying justice” to many victims, an expert has said, as it was revealed that the longest-running criminal case is now entering its ninth year.
It involves Lurgan republican Colin Duffy and the Belfast men Alex McCrory and Harry Fitzsimons.
The three were arrested in December 2013 following a gun attack on a police convoy in Ardoyne in north Belfast.
All three were originally remanded and spent several years in custody before being released on bail in February 2016 after concerns were expressed about the length of time it was taking the case to come to trial.
Both Fitzsimons and McCrory, who are former Provisional IRA prisoners, are charged with attempted murder, firearm possession, preparation of terrorist acts, directing a terrorist organisation and membership of a proscribed organisation.
Duffy is charged with preparation of terrorist acts, directing a terrorist organisation and membership of a proscribed organisation.
The charges rely on evidence arising from surveillance involving MI5.
The men were allegedly recorded and videoed by the agency in a park in Lurgan discussing the attack the following day.
The defence has argued that the voice analysis is “fundamentally flawed”.
The case is being heard in a judge-only, Diplock-style court, and has been dogged by delays — it is currently the longest-running criminal case in either the UK or Ireland.
The case is currently not sitting while the trial judge considers legal submissions.
The case of two alleged senior dissident republicans, Belfast man Carl Reilly and Paul Crawford from Warrenpoint, has being delayed in part because of legal arguments being made in the Duffy case which could impact on the prosecution case against them.
The matter is in its seventh year and both men are charged with the commissioning of acts of terrorism “between January 1, 2014, and October 17, 2015”.
A date for the case to be heard has yet to be set. It was listed for November last year to fix a date, but it was once again delayed.
The prosecution relies heavily on a secret recording made at a hotel near Dundalk.
It is the first case of its kind, in that it relied on intelligence gathered in the Republic of Ireland to bring terrorist charges in Northern Ireland.
Last week, the trial of Raymond O’Neill, charged with the murder of popular mother-of-three Jennifer Dornan, was once again delayed.
While the judge apologised to Ms Dornan’s family, it was the latest in a long line of setbacks for her loved ones.
O’Neill, who had an address at Amcomri Street in the lower Falls area of Belfast, is accused of killing Ms Dornan and setting fire to her home.
The 30-year-old was found inside her burning house at Hazel View in the Lagmore area on August 2015. She had been stabbed to death.
The prosecution claims O’Neill left the jurisdiction shortly after the murder. He was arrested in the Republic of Ireland and extradited.
He tried to fight the extradition — something that delayed the case. Since being brought across the border and remanded in Maghaberry, there have been numerous additional delays.
Last Friday, as the trial was about to start, Mr Justice Scoffield told the court that because of pressures associated with Covid, a decision had been taken to adjourn the trial to next month.
Apologising for the delay, the judge said the case had now been “accorded a level of priority, given how long it has been since the incident which is at the centre of the proceedings”.
Daniel Sebastian Allen, whose address has been given as Maghaberry Prison, is charged with murdering four members of the same family, including a baby, and with arson with intent to endanger life.
Three generations of the same family died in a fire in a bungalow on Molly Road in Derrylin on February 27, 2018.
They were 45-year-old Denise Gossett, her 16-year-old son Roman Gossett, her 19-year-old daughter Sabrina Gossett and Sabrina’s 15-month-old baby girl Morgana.
Allen pleaded not guilty to all five charges during an arraignment hearing in July 2020. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Justice O’Hara did not set a trial date at the time.
Since then, there have been a number of further delays, with no trial date as yet set.
Niall Cox, from McCrea Park in Clogher, and Karen Marie McDonald (35), of the same address, are charged with the murder of Pat Ward in February 2019.
After a series of legal setbacks, there is currently no trial date for this case.
The couple is on remand — Cox in Maghaberry Prison and McDonald in Hydebank Wood detention centre.
A defence barrister representing McDonald previously told the court he had been unable to conduct a consultation with his client because of pandemic restrictions.
Barristers have regularly raised the issue of access to clients in the weekly review courts.
A shortage of clinical psychologists, who compile reports on behalf of defence teams, has also been raised as a major issue in delaying the progress of cases.
According to Department of Justice figures, in 2020/21 the average time taken for a charge case to be dealt with at Crown Court was 470 days, an increase of 14.6% from 2019/20 (410 days).
The average time taken for a summons case to be dealt with at Crown Court was 939 days, an increase of 9.1% from 2019/20 (861 days).
Dr Kevin Brown, an expert in criminal justice and sentencing and a senior lecturer at Queen’s University, described the delays as unacceptable.
“Our system is incredibly slow in comparison with England Wales. When you compare a case in the magistrates [courts], it’s significantly longer. It’s the same in the Crown Court,” he said.
“There are different reasons why it is significantly longer, including the issue with committal hearings, although that by itself will not solve the problem.
“Access delayed is access denied to many victims and defendants.
“It is an ongoing scandal that our system is so slow.”
Awaiting trial: Defendants in long-running court cases (top row, from left) Colin Duffy, Alex McCrory, Harry Fitzsimons. Middle row, from left: Carl Reilly, Paul Crawford, Raymond O’Neill. Bottom row, from left: Daniel Sebastian Allen, Karen McDonald and Niall Cox