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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 May 2007, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Terror trial put system under strain
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

The conclusion of a trial at the Old Bailey, which has lasted more than a year, has brought into sharp focus the pressures caused by terrorism trials with multiple defendants and a mass of evidence, much of it from surveillance footage.

The Old Bailey
There is some debate about how to relieve pressure on the courts

Can juries cope with the length of cases? Can judges handle the unrelenting workload? And, with many other trials in the pipeline, is the court system able to take the strain?

With the government still wedded to abolishing juries in complex fraud trials, some lawyers suspect that ministers would like to dispense with juries in terrorism trials too. In her summing up in the fertiliser bomb trial, Baroness Kennedy QC made a pointed reference to the importance of the jury in such cases.

And, after sentencing, the judge, Sir Michael Astill, thanked the jurors and said he supported " jury trial in this case 100%".

It is true former Home Secretary Charles Clarke made favourable references to some features of French counter-terrorism, with its cadre of specialist prosecutors and examining magistrates whose cases are heard by a special section of the Paris Court.

But there is no evidence for thinking such a radical departure from customary practice is being planned in the UK.

However, administrative changes are coming in.

Judges need to 'get a grip'

If most of the legal argument was heard before the jury is sworn, that would save a lot of time
Gerald Butler QC, retired judge

A panel of up to 20 specialist High Court judges has been nominated for terror trials and the deputy Lord Chief Justice, Sir Igor Judge, has issued a protocol on how to run cases more efficiently.

Preliminary hearings are supposed to cut out some of the "surprise" elements which can slow down trials but, in many terrorism cases, they have failed to do so.

Indeed, in the ongoing 21/7 trial at Woolwich Crown Court, Mr Justice Fulford has promised an inquiry into "what has gone wrong" and caused the case to overrun.

A retired judge, Gerald Butler QC, believes the problem in general lies principally with those on the bench.

He said: "It's not the fault of the jury. Judges have to be encouraged to cut out the waffle and get a firm grip on these cases. And if most of the legal argument was heard before the jury is sworn, that would also save a lot of time."

How to relieve some of the pressure on the courts is also of concern.

Even with the fertiliser bomb trial over, more than 20 other terror trials are still ongoing or in the pipeline.

The high security Woolwich Crown Court complex hears most of these trials rather than the Old Bailey because of the proximity of Belmarsh prison.

But only two of Woolwich's seven courts are big enough for cases with multiple defendants and there are only four consulting rooms for lawyers.

So there is an urgent search for other options, including using courts in Birmingham and the North West for terror cases.

Not enough cells

Prosecutors lay some of the blame for delay on the tactics of defence lawyers.

For example in the ricin trial, which ended in April 2005, argument over the possible involvement of the Algerian government in torturing one of the suspects occupied a month of court time.

Paddington Green Police Station
Paddington Green only holds 16

The police, however, tend to be more sanguine.

A Scotland Yard source said:"If I was facing a terrorist charge, I would expect my brief to do anything to defend me."

But the police are concerned about the number of officers diverted from front-line duties to attend long-running terror trials.

The strain is also being felt at Paddington Green police station, built in the 1960s to house IRA suspects. With only 16 cells, it could not cope when, as in one recent case, 21 people were arrested.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission noted Paddington Green's problems in its report into the high-profile 2006 Forest Gate arrests.

It said the facility needed to be improved if it were to remain suitable for longer-term detention, such as that under current terrorism laws.

It seems certain that plans will be laid to build a new and bigger high security complex, perhaps at Woolwich.




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