Northern Ireland’s Crown Court system is so slow it is ‘denying justice’ to many victims, an expert has claimed, as it has been revealed that the longest-running criminal case is now entering its ninth year.
They are Lurgan Republican Colin Duffy and Belfast men Alex McCrory and Harry Fitzsimons.
The three men were arrested in December 2013 following a gun attack on a police convoy in Ardoyne, north Belfast.
All three were initially remanded in custody and spent several years in custody before being released on bail in February 2016 after concerns were raised about how long the case was taking to go to trial.
Fitzsimons and McCrory, who are former IRA provisional prisoners, are charged with attempted murder, possession of firearms, plotting to commit terrorist acts, leading a terrorist organization and membership in a banned organization.
Duffy is accused of preparing terrorist acts, leading a terrorist organization and belonging to a banned organization.
The charges are based on surveillance evidence implicating MI5.
The men were reportedly taped and filmed by the agency in a park in Lurgan discussing the attack the next day.
The defense argued that the voice analysis was “fundamentally flawed”.
The case is being heard in a Diplock-style court, made up of all judges, and has suffered delays – it is currently the longest-running criminal case in the UK or Ireland.
The case is currently not pending while the trial judge considers the legal arguments.
The case of two suspected dissident Republicans, Belfast man Carl Reilly and Paul Crawford of Warrenpoint, has been delayed in part because of legal arguments made in the Duffy case that could impact the prosecution of them .
The case is in its seventh year and the two men are accused of having committed acts of terrorism “between January 1, 2014 and October 17, 2015”.
A hearing date for the case has not yet been set. It was listed for November last year to set a date, but it was again delayed.
The prosecution relies heavily on a secret recording made at a hotel near Dundalk.
This is the first such case, in that he relied on intelligence gathered in the Republic of Ireland to bring terrorism charges in Northern Ireland.
Last week, the trial of Raymond O’Neill, charged with the murder of popular mother-of-three Jennifer Dornan, was again postponed.
While the judge apologized 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 in Amcomri Street in the Lower Falls area of Belfast, is accused of killing Ms Dornan and burning down her house.
The 30-year-old woman was found in her burning house in Hazel View in the Lagmore area in August 2015. She had been stabbed to death.
The prosecution says O’Neill left the court shortly after the murder. He was arrested in the Republic of Ireland and extradited.
He attempted to fight extradition, which delayed the case. Since crossing the border and being incarcerated at Maghaberry, there have been many further delays.
Last Friday, as the trial was about to begin, Judge Scoffield told the court that due to Covid-related pressures a decision had been made to adjourn the trial until next month.
Apologizing for the delay, the judge said the case had now “given itself a level of priority, given the time that has elapsed since the incident which is at the center of the proceedings”.
Daniel Sebastian Allen, whose address was given as Maghaberry Prison, is charged with the murder of four members of the same family, including a baby, and 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 granddaughter, Morgana.
Allen pleaded not guilty to all five counts at an arraignment hearing in July 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Judge 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 yet set.
Niall Cox, of 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 are on remand – Cox in Maghaberry Prison and McDonald in Hydebank Wood Detention Centre.
A defense attorney representing McDonald’s previously told the court he was unable to conduct a consultation with his client due to pandemic restrictions.
Lawyers regularly raised the issue of client access in weekly review courts.
A shortage of clinical psychologists, who write reports on behalf of defense teams, has also been raised as a major issue delaying case progress.
According to Ministry of Justice figures, in 2020/21 the average time it took for an indictment case to be heard in the Crown Court was 470 days, a 14.6% increase on 2019/ 20 (410 days).
The average time to process a Crown Court subpoena case was 939 days, an increase of 9.1% on 2019/20 (861 days).
Dr Kevin Brown, a criminal justice and sentencing expert and senior lecturer at Queen’s University, called the delays unacceptable.
“Our system is incredibly slow compared to England in Wales. When you compare a case in the magistrates [courts], it is much longer. It’s the same at the Crown Court,’ he said.
“There are various reasons why it is much longer, including the problem of committal hearings, although that will not solve the problem in itself.
“Delayed access is access denied to many victims and defendants.
“It’s a continuing outrage that our system is so slow.”
Awaiting trial: defendants in long-running court cases (top row, left to right) Colin Duffy, Alex McCrory, Harry Fitzsimons. Middle row, left to right: Carl Reilly, Paul Crawford, Raymond O’Neill. Bottom row, left to right: Daniel Sebastian Allen, Karen McDonald and Niall Cox